Biden seizes control of Democratic presidential race with big primary wins over Sanders

Andrew Romano and David Knowles
·5 min read

Joe Biden maintained his momentum over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race Tuesday, winning state primaries, building his delegate lead and solidifying his status as the clear favorite to win his party’s nomination.

As soon as polls closed at 8 p.m. ET, the Associated Press declared Biden the winner in Mississippi, which awards 36 delegates on a proportional basis, and then in Missouri, where 68 delegates were at stake. When polls closed an hour later in Michigan, with its 125 delegates the biggest prize of the night, the AP gave Sanders more demoralizing news, calling the state for Biden. Before the evening was over, Biden was projected as the winner in Idaho as well.

“As I said from the beginning, this election is one that has character on the ballot,” Biden told a small gathering of supporters in Philadelphia. “The character of the candidates, the character of the nation is on the ballot. It’s more than a comeback, in my view, our campaign. It’s a comeback for the soul of this nation. This campaign is taking off, and I believe that we’re going to do well from this point on.”

Heading into Tuesday’s contests, Biden held a 652-573 delegate lead over Sanders, and it quickly became apparent that the former vice president would add to that lead. In the six states voting on Tuesday, 365 delegates were at stake that were crucial to Sanders if he was to have any chance of heading into the Democratic convention in Milwaukee with a majority.

The startling shift in the dynamics of the race was not the only surprise of the campaign. The rapid spread of coronavirus across the United States has added uncertainty about what will follow.

“We were planning a big rally in Cleveland tonight,” Biden said Tuesday. “But the governor of Ohio asked the presidential campaigns to cancel their indoor public events in Cleveland with large, large crowds of people, and that’s what we did due to the coronavirus.”

Sanders also canceled a planned rally in Ohio, returning to his home state of Vermont and bypassing the opportunity to speak about Tuesday’s results. That left Biden with the only speech of the night, and he used his time to sound like a candidate who had all but secured the nomination.

“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said. “We share a common goal, and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together.”

Biden’s confidence was not misplaced. He routed Sanders in Mississippi and beat him handily in Missouri, all but ensuring that the Vermont senator would not be able to take advantage of what might have been his best remaining opportunity to regain the delegate lead.

In a race that was upended when Biden built on an overwhelming victory in South Carolina to win 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday, former Democratic rivals Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke have all endorsed the former vice president. Adding insult to injury, Elizabeth Warren, the progressive candidate perhaps closest to Sanders in terms of ideology, has withheld an endorsement of him since dropping out of the race last week.

“In just the past week, so many of my incredible competitors have endorsed me,” Biden said in his speech, adding: “Together we’re bringing this party together. That’s what we have to do. Tonight we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House. That’s our ultimate goal.”

With results showing that Biden would have another big night on Tuesday, Andrew Yang joined his fellow candidates in formally backing him as the man the party will put forth to take on President Trump in the November general election.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden at a rally in Detroit on Monday. (Paul Sancya/AP)

For Sanders, the road ahead is daunting.

Biden’s national polling lead has skyrocketed. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, Biden trailed Sanders by more than 10 points, on average. As of Tuesday, he led by nearly 20 points, with a majority of Democratic primary voters (roughly 52 percent) saying they supported him. That may be the most rapid polling swing in presidential primary history: a gain of roughly 35 points in just 14 days.

The calendar isn’t doing Sanders any favors, either. Next Tuesday, four big states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — will vote. The latest polling averages show Biden ahead by wide margins everywhere: 37 points in Florida, 29 points in Ohio, 21 points in Arizona and 24 points in Illinois.

The first one-on-one Democratic debate will take place Sunday in Phoenix, and Sanders is banking on a knockout performance to reset the race. But given that Florida and Arizona both rely heavily on early voting, even a sterling display might prove to be too little, too late.

Sanders's position is especially perilous in light of what follows: the so-called Acela Primary on April 28, when Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island go to the polls. It’s the second-biggest day of primary season, with 663 delegates at stake — and perhaps the single most favorable day for Biden, who was born and grew up in Pennsylvania and who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for 36 years.

And even if the schedule weren’t so stacked against Sanders, history would still be on Biden’s side. No modern presidential candidate has ever mounted a successful comeback after Super Tuesday (or the equivalent point in the race). The reasons are simple: Winning begets winning, and fewer and fewer delegates are available for the lagging candidate to win in order to close the gap.

Twelve years ago — post-Super Tuesday — Barack Obama's lead in the national polls was a third the size of Biden's today. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton's lead was half the size of Biden's. Neither of their challengers — Clinton in 2008 and Sanders in 2016 — was able to catch up.

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