From Tuesday, February 24 through Super Tuesday, March 3, Biden had an acceptable debate performance, the field finally ganged up on Bernie Sanders, Biden got Jim Clyburn’s South Carolina endorsement, Biden dominated the South Carolina Primary, he forced out Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, predictably earned their endorsement, built up a full steam of momentum heading into Super Tuesday, beat every expectation on the big day, and left Mike Bloomberg with so few delegates that he too was left with the obvious decision to drop out and endorse Biden.
I’ll return to where things stand between Biden and Sanders a bit later. Let’s first tackle some of the non-competitors.
Hilariously, earning a delegate had been a sufficient requirement to make the last three debates. She finally won one, but I have no doubt the DNC will push back the goal posts to qualify for the eleventh debate, scheduled for March 15. There’s no way they’ll let Gabbard on stage with the front-runners, nor should they. Her second place finish in American Samoa and distant fifth (and often worse, behind candidates who have dropped out) everywhere else does not qualify her to be on the stage.
As for the only candidate to beat her out in American Samoa…
The Bloomberg Campaign is dead. Cause of death: Elizabeth Warren
Upon Wednesday’s suspension of his campaign, many hilarious statistics came out about the amount of money he spent versus what it got him. For example, it looks like he spent about $570 million; at current count, his 73 delegates puts it at nearly eight million dollars per delegate. However, if it were me, I find the most joy framing it as how much it cost him to win American Samoa. He nearly spent as much money on this campaign as the American Samoa’s annual Gross Domestic Product.
Anyway, he’s out now. Looking back at his campaign, we see his support was like a bubble in the stock market. There was a lot of excitement there, but as soon as Warren and other candidates took their knives out, boy did that bubble burst. Honestly, I think he probably would had made one of the better presidents of this Democratic field, but his record on minority issues, silencing women, and lavish spending would have made him the most hypocritical nomination possible for this Democratic Party. His opponents did well to point that out, Warren best of all.
Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, she finally hung it up, too. On Tuesday, not only did the former front-runner not win a state, she never even placed second. That includes in the state she grew up, Oklahoma, and more embarrassingly, the state she represents in the Senate, Massachusetts.
Famous for having “a plan” for everything, since New Hampshire her plan for the nomination seemed to be:
Step 1) Don’t drop out
Step 2) ???
Step 3) Win the nomination
I had said that her best hope was to be seen as the compromise candidate between the Left and Establishment at a contested convention, but that would have required being a lot more viable at the delegate level and, you know, actually having a contested convention. For reasons I’ll get more into later, an open convention is not in the Democrats’ future this year. Still, it’s conceivable that, even in a slimmed two-person race (a framing which I’ll tolerate getting described as “Tulsi erasure” only if such accusers acknowledge the hundreds of other official candidates they’ve “erased” who are nearly as viable as Gabbard), neither Biden nor Sanders get to a delegate majority. If the first ballot doesn’t settle it, everyone is on the table on the second ballot, from Michelle Obama to Hillary Clinton to Elizabeth Warren.
In the meantime, she stayed in the race just long enough to really tick off Sanders supporters — which, admittedly, isn’t hard to do. They saw the moderate lane rallying around Biden and wanted Warren to do the same for Sanders to unite progressives. However, I’m not so sure that Warren withdrawing would have had that result. Morning Consult found that Warren supporters preferred Sanders to Biden at a surprisingly close 43 to 36 split.
What explains that? For one, the most ardent progressives ditched her long ago, and many of those that remained had a falling out with an often antagonistic Sanders crowd. Part of my Super Tuesday prediction was that Bloomberg and Warren would both underperform their polls when their supporters thought strategically in the ballot box, which would bolster Biden and Sanders’s numbers, but I was only right about Bloomberg. The fact that Warren supporters did not prop up Sanders, who had far more viability than she did, is a sign that they’re not actually that keen on Sanders. In other words, they already would have moved to him by now, but nothing about his voting percentages in states that have voted suggest he’s climbing in popularity over the last month.
I’m not qualified to psychoanalyze, but I’d guess that Sanders supporters who are blaming Warren are looking for something to blame for why their movement peters.
There seems to be plenty of blame to go around. On Tuesday night, as state after state voted Biden (including upsets in states I predicted incorrectly — the alliterative trio of Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota), many Sanders supporters fell back on the old refrain: #RiggedPrimary
When it comes from the Trump or Sanders crowd, PPFA, being the neoliberal free-trading shill that I am, rarely sees conspiracy. In the last four years, the DNC created a rigorous debate schedule, made number of donors a debate threshold, kept an early primary calendar favorable to Sanders, allowed caucus states to publish “initial choice” preferences for the first time, and removed superdelegates from the national convention’s first ballot. All of these moves were concessions to the Sanders wing of the party that it didn’t have to do.
And even if those concessions don’t absolve the charges, what we saw on Tuesday wasn’t a rigging at all, but Democratic voters going to the polls and, you know, voting. That’s how this is supposed to work. The fact that candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar endorsed Biden is not evidence of rigging. It’s evidence that Biden is more sympatico with their ideologies, which was no surprise. When math in New Hampshire showed that the moderate candidates’ total added up to more than the progressives’ total, this is what they were talking about. It’s no surprise — certainly not to this writer — that a thinning field is better for Biden than Sanders.
Of course, President Trump continues to “sympathize” with Sanders. “Democrats are working hard to destroy the name and reputation of Crazy Bernie Sanders, and take the nomination away from him!” he tweet-shouted last weekend while using a comma to separate a dependent clause. More recently, he helped fester the Warren excuse by blaming Warren for Sanders’s struggles; yesterday, he opined that she waited too long to drop out, hurting Sanders with the delay.
Now, whether his political analysis is right or wrong is beside the point. The fact that he’s publicly wading in here is not only an attempt to fester discontent at a time when Sanders supporters are arriving at peak bitterness, but it’s also a recruitment strategy for disaffected Berners. You know behind closed doors he’s saying, “We’re going to pick up some of these Bernie voters.”
To be clear, it’s a really smart strategy. He’s striking while the collars are hot. Every converted Sanders supporters is subtraction from the Democrats and addition to the Republicans. Two votes for the price of one. And if anyone knows how to deploy a two for the price of one strategy, it’s our slick grifter-in-chief, Donald Trump.
That’s not to say it’s a totally unrigged system. I mean, it’s politics we’re talking about. I happen to think Sanders ran a colossally more impressive campaign than did Biden, one where he raised an incredible amount of money from a profoundly loyal following and laid out a clear, aggressive agenda for change. He’s been far more visible, articulate, and convincing than a frequently absent, unfocused, and unsure Biden, and I think Biden’s weaknesses will be writ large in a general election. He’s nowhere near as strong a general election candidate as I thought he’d be two years ago when I first picked him as the nominee. The fact that he received a double-bye past Iowa and New Hampshire then won a single primary to become the favorite for the nomination is more evidence of a “rigged” system than anything the DNC or media did.
The lesson, of course, is that people who play the game stand a much better chance of winning than those who don’t. If “rigging” means being a lifetime Democrat who has spent years building relationships in the party, translating those relationships to votes from Democrats and endorsements from other candidates, then fine, this system was rigged against the guy who is only a Democrat in presidential years and brags about tearing the establishment down. (Similarly, it’s evidence of how someone puts themselves in position to govern once elected. Here’s where I pour one out for Amy K.) In sum, of course the establishment — to say nothing of the people who have been voting for the establishment for years — came to Biden’s rescue when Sanders was on the verge of pulling away. Sanders and his followers have been attacking them for years, and it’s simply not that easy to both fight against a party while also vying for its leadership. Like Jill Biden pass-blocking a dairy protester, the party leaped to Biden’s defense.
Unfortunately for the Sanders Campaign, aside from this ostensibly rigged system, the co-leader of what’s at fault for this downward turn is an accusation that dogs Sanders from pundits, including PPFA. In no state (outside of Vermont) did it seem possible that Sanders would be able to grow his devout following into a majority coalition. Some of that is due to his far left platform and often abrasive take-downs of the Democratic Party, and some of it is due to his supporters’ loudly appalling social media behavior.
I remember on Sunday night Chasten Buttigieg fighting off tears as he introduced his husband before Mayor Pete’s announcement that he was suspending his campaign. Chasten noted the historical nature of the campaign and what it could mean to young LGBT people out there thinking about their future. It was clear how proud he was of his husband for shouldering that burden as he ran a national campaign and conducted himself with grace and maturity knowing full well he was the first ambassador from America’s LGBT community to have that kind of moment. It was a big deal.
As I watched that speech, I monitored social media and watched Sanders supporters’ celebration over this development. Dancing on his campaign’s grave, the pure hatred some of these Sanders supporters had for Buttigieg was evident. Still, that’s not the political problem here. The political problem is that with Buttigieg’s suspension, about 10% of Democrats were suddenly up for grabs, but the supporters I was saw cared more about their latest scalp than they did showing Buttigieg supporters that they’d fit under the Sanders tent. So not only did they have no respect for the moment, but tactically they were sending a terrible message to free agents. All over what… policy disagreements? Accepting campaign contributions from wealthy people? Over agreeing on just about every political goal but disagreeing on how to get there?
That’s not a great way to pick up supporters. Being a purist is easy. Convincing others of your purity is hard. Warren and her supporters feeling their ire this week is just the latest example of questionable voter outreach.
I’ve said before how Sanders has handled himself much better, and he often paradoxically works in calls for Democratic unity between launching broadsides into the hull of the Democratic establishment. However, though he was the leader coming out of Nevada, he didn’t know how to nurse that lead. All the Fidel Castro stuff was an unforced error. One of his more endearing qualities is the courage of his convictions; he stands by compliments of Castro and other Communist leaders because he thinks Castro and other Communist leaders should sometimes be complimented. Technically he’s probably right about that; it’s analogous to how we can hail Washington and Jefferson even though they were slave owners.
But pragmatically speaking, there are ways to walk back such words to a politically viable place. Some applaud his stubbornness, but politically it doesn’t always work. Worse yet, that snafu was a clear harbinger of what the general election would look like were he the nominee. It’d be week after week of answering for past comments on communism and socialism, and while he was busy explaining, all undecided voters would be hearing is Sanders talking about communism and socialism.
So seemingly all at once this came together for Super Tuesday. We had Sanders struggling with Castro comments; the debate field turning on Sanders; Clyburn; South Carolina; the dropouts and the endorsements. It became clear to every anti-Sanders voter who they had to vote for to deny him the nomination: Joe Biden.
We saw trouble for Sanders even before polls closed. Exit polls suggested nearly 30% of voters decided in the last few days, and nearly half of those voters (47%) broke to Biden, while under a fifth (18%) broke to Sanders. In most states we see a surge from Biden’s polling to those who voted for Biden. Only in places with strong early and mail-in votes did Sanders either win or keep it close. Exit polls also showed young voters did not turn out like Sanders had promised. Instead, black, older and suburban voters — always more reliable — showed up to support Biden. Women, too, tipped to Biden. All of the groups we pundits talk about as swing voters for November, the kinds of voters that gave the House to the Democrats in the midterms, sided with Biden. Incredibly, it’s Joe Biden driving turnout now, not Bernie Sanders.
When polls did close, we saw immediate calls for Biden in Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama, which signified he was going to win those states big, but later Sanders states like Massachusetts and Maine were characterized as too close to call — and eventually went to Biden anyway. Biden had a great night, and not even mighty California has saved Sanders.
And again, Biden was doing this without having run a good campaign. He was doing it with little money, few field offices, and an outclassed organization. Biden spent less than 10 thousand dollars in Minnesota and never visited the state. He spent $89,000 in Texas, a state he won narrowly (boom). Bloomberg and Sanders were spending millions across the country. Instead, all it took for Biden to win Super Tuesday was South Carolina, endorsements, and the motivation provided by his opponent.
In retrospect, his greatest advantage has always been sheer name recognition. Everyone knew him, and most of the party was comfortable with him. Indeed, name recognition says a lot about the final stages of this race. Who were the four candidates with the highest name recognition in the field? Biden, Sanders, Bloomberg, and Warren, just as they were early in 2019. And they were the last four major candidates.
In my mental notes, here’s where I wanted to get into the latest numbers, do some long-term delegate math, and pivot to looking forward at this two-man race. However, they’re still counting delegates and I’m approaching 2700 words, so I’ll spare you.
In the broadest possible strokes, I’ll say this: Sanders has a week to reset, and on March 15 he’ll have a one-on-one debate against a notoriously weak debater. It’s not over. After all, just two weeks ago Sanders was seen as the favorite, so things can flip.
That being said, evaluations from two weeks ago were before nearly 40% of delegates were doled out and all but two major candidates dropped out. The variables have been dramatically reduced moving forward. Biden should be considered a strong favorite to win the nomination, and I think he’ll do it with an outright majority before the convention. It’s more likely this race turns into a Biden blowout than a Sanders comeback.