Biden Surges Ahead of Super Tuesday, May Not Catch Sanders

Justin Sink
Biden Surges Ahead of Super Tuesday, May Not Catch Sanders

(Bloomberg) -- Former Vice President Joe Biden did something in 24 hours he couldn’t do for more than a year -- coalesce the Democratic Party’s establishment around him as he tries to thwart Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday.

And it still might not be enough.

Sanders holds the advantage in key contests – including delegate-rich states like Texas and California – and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatens to play spoiler. So the risk for moderate Democrats is that the exit of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar is too little, too late.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Tuesday’s contests – across 14 states, plus American Samoa, that will award more than a third of all delegates to the Democratic convention in July in Milwaukee – provide a key test for each of the remaining contenders.

Sanders – a self-described democratic socialist who many in the party fear would return President Donald Trump to the White House – seems certain to emerge with the most delegates. Biden’s task is to win enough support to stand as a credible challenger to Sanders as the primary calendar moves to frequent contests that stretch through June, a task that would be made easier by the growing support he’s received just since Saturday night.

What Sanders, Biden and Others Need to Win on Super Tuesday

The Vermont senator will no longer benefit from a fractured field of moderates, and it will be up to Biden to harness the momentum from his South Carolina victory and turn Klobuchar’s and Buttigieg’s endorsements into actual votes. Yet Biden has repeatedly bungled advantages throughout the nominating contest, and the impact of the last-minute withdrawals might be muted with millions of early-voting ballots already cast. In 2016 in California, 60% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day by early or mail-in voting.

As of Monday, Biden was leading in polls in at least two states, North Carolina and Virginia. But polls taken since his South Carolina victory show him closing the gap in other states.

Further complicating the former vice president’s efforts is Bloomberg, who has poured unprecedented personal resources into a late bid for the nomination. But that strategy faces its first electoral test Tuesday, providing a referendum on whether Bloomberg outsmarted the traditional primary process, or saw more than a half-billion dollars go for naught.

And Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who remains popular among college-educated white voters, is eager to justify her continued presence in the race. She faces a key test in her home state, where a loss to Sanders could prove fatal to her campaign.

Sanders returned home to Burlington to cast his vote in the Vermont primary Tuesday, while Warren went to her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to vote.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for a party still reeling from Trump’s election, and weighing diametrically opposite approaches to winning back the blue-collar, working-class voters along the Rust Belt that had long served as its electoral firewall -- Biden’s centrist vision or Sanders’ populist one.

And if voters Tuesday fail to winnow the field, the odds of a contested convention – a political occurrence unseen in nearly 70 years - will soar, further emboldening the incumbent president and diminishing the odds of a successful opposition challenge.

Bloomberg said Tuesday that the only way he can secure the nomination is a contested convention, since he believes no candidate will emerge from the primary season with a majority of pledged delegates.

“I don’t think that I can win any other ways, but a contested convention is a democratic process,” he said when asked by reporters during a stop at a campaign office in Miami whether he wants a contested convention. “There are rules of the Democratic Party of how you go about this.”

Biden told a cheering crowd in Houston on Monday that the country is weary of division, “and hungry, hungry to be united.”

In Dallas, he said that “just a few days ago, press and the pundits declared this campaign dead. But South Carolina had something to say about it. And tomorrow, Texas and Minnesota and the rest of Super Tuesday states, you’re going to have a lot to say about it. And when you do, we will be on our way to defeating Donald Trump and a second term.”

Tuesday’s results are expected to be literally and figuratively all-over-the-map, but a few important benchmarks are likely to shape interpretations of the Super Tuesday contests.

For Biden, his viability will rest on replicating his South Carolina success across a group of Southern states – including Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina – with significant African-American populations and more moderate Democratic voters likely to eye Sanders with skepticism. In Tennessee, however, turnout could be affected after a tornado ripped across the state early Tuesday, causing widespread damage and killing at least 22 people.

It’s a high risk-high reward strategy. Dominating those states could solidify Biden in the mind of voters as the lone viable moderate candidate, and leave him within striking distance of Sanders’s delegate total. It would also likely intensify the recent and badly needed wave of donations to his campaign, which saw more than $10 million come in since his South Carolina victory.

But Bloomberg has targeted the same voters, blanketing airwaves with $539 million in advertisements and setting up a massive cross-country operation with 2,400 staff. He has spent a total of $687 million so far on his campaign, and he appears for the first time on ballots Tuesday.

Biden successfully fended off a similar effort by billionaire Tom Steyer in South Carolina, effectively chasing the longtime Democratic donor from the race. But if Bloomberg proves more resilient – especially after a widely panned first debate performance – it could both put a delegate majority out of reach for Biden while providing a foothold for the former mayor to remain in the race.

Conversely, a poor showing by Bloomberg could intensify questions about whether his continued presence splits the anti-Sanders vote and represents a danger to the party’s chances in November.

Bloomberg has gambled big on California, which will award 30% of the delegates committed on Tuesday night. But that ad blitz apparently couldn’t compete with Sanders’s arguments in a state where income inequality is a stark reality for millions.

Early polls suggest that Sanders is likely the only lock to hit the 15% viability threshold in congressional districts across the state, buoyed by his strong numbers with young Latino voters, and a sweeping victory could mean he ends the night hundreds of delegates ahead of Biden. And with more than 3 million ballots already returned by voters, the former vice president’s late surge might not translate as he seeks to capture a chunk of the state’s 415 delegates.

California’s substantial mail-in vote can cut both ways, however. Since ballots don’t need to be postmarked until Election Day, it will be days before final results are reported, denying Sanders some of the media attention a big win would normally provide.

Still, there are other targets that could provide Sanders both delegates and narrative. A big win in Texas – which Sanders lost by more than 30 points in 2016 – would not only provide a substantial delegate haul, but allow the candidate to argue he’s expanding his appeal. And Sanders will likely be boosted by early voting in the state, with more than a million Democrats already casting their ballots.

He told reporters in Utah on Monday that he believed he was the popular favorite and that institutions scared of his democratic socialist policies were trying to stop him.

“It is clear to me that the corporate elite is getting very nervous about our campaign and they are doing everything they possibly can in every way to try to stop us,” he said.

(Adds Viginia poll in eighth paragraph, Tennessee tornado in 19th)

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Wendy Benjaminson, Magan Crane

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