Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Super Tuesday Review: Biden Back in Front

The vote-counting from Tuesday's elections will continue not only through the night but also, in California anyway, for a couple of weeks to come. Yet the overall picture is relatively clear. Joe Biden appears to be the winner in ten states (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). Bernie Sanders has placed first in four states (California, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont). Mike Bloomberg won the caucus in American Samoa, and Elizabeth Warren finished no better than third in every state or territory—including her home state of Massachusetts.

Here are some of the most important implications of the Super Tuesday results:

1. All of a sudden, Biden is once again at the front of the Democratic race, in what might be the most dramatic apparent comeback in the modern history of nominations (no candidate has previously survived finishing fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire to vault back into the lead). The Biden surge of the past week was spread across the entire nation, and only the prevalence of early and mail voting in California, Texas, and Colorado kept him from amassing a near-decisive lead in delegates.

2. We won't know the final results in California for a while, and it's possible that Sanders did well enough there to keep the total Super Tuesday delegate margin between him and Biden from becoming too lopsided. But the most damaging result for Sanders on Tuesday wasn't the delegate count—it was his unexpected losses in Massachusetts and Minnesota. Beginning with next week's primaries in Michigan and Missouri, many of the key states in the post-Super Tuesday phase of the nomination calendar are urban states in the Northeast and Midwest, including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. Had Sanders been able to confine Biden's victories on Tuesday to the string of states from Virginia to Texas, he could have argued that Biden's strength was mostly regional and unlikely to endure once the contest moved northward. But Sanders's losses in two medium-sized, mostly white urban states where Biden didn't even campaign or spend money are much more troubling omens for his candidacy.

3. These results show why a truly contested convention—despite dominating media speculation in the early stages of every election season—is unlikely to occur except under very unusual circumstances. Nearly always, nomination contests naturally narrow down fairly quickly to one or two viable candidates; it's very hard for three candidacies to sustain themselves through the entire gauntlet of primaries. With only two contenders (at most) left standing by the end of the schedule, one or the other can count on a first-ballot majority at the convention, even if the arithmetic technically requires a bloc of delegates previously pledged to withdrawn candidates to pitch in enough votes to put the leading delegate-winner over the top. (Before a recent round of rules changes barred their participation on the first ballot, superdelegates could also perform this service, as they did for Barack Obama in 2008.) Democratic voters in the first 18 states have reduced what was once a large field of candidates to two plausible remaining options—Biden and Sanders—and the role of Democrats in the remaining 32 states is to determine which of these two will be the nominee.

4. Biden's now the favorite once again, but Sanders is by no means out of the running. More twists and turns are still quite possible, if not likely. But this is usually the kind of defeat that compels a candidate to make adjustments: tweak the campaign message, revise the strategy, target a new constituency. A key question hanging over the rest of this race is whether Sanders, who prides himself on his consistency, will rethink his approach or simply plow ahead on his current path.

5. A lot of people seem to have drawn the conclusion from the last few days that campaign ads and field organizing have become fairly meaningless in modern elections, since Biden engineered his historic surge while being massively outspent and out-organized by Sanders and Bloomberg. The reality is probably more complicated. It's certainly true that national media and social media are more important factors in the nomination horse race, and local organizations less important factors, than they once were. But Biden also has a unique advantage: everybody already knows who he is, and Democrats already have positive views of him, so television ads and campaign mailers are much less necessary to boost his name recognition or get his message out than would be true for other candidates.

In fact, it's very possible that Biden's lack of money and organizational capacity severely damaged and almost ended his candidacy in Iowa and New Hampshire—especially in Iowa, where the caucus system rewards candidates who have the infrastructure to identify supporters, drag them to the caucus meetings, and keep them there until the voting is complete. Similarly, while Bloomberg's money wasn't sufficient to deliver him the nomination, one glance at the Super Tuesday results is enough to confirm that he was able to buy himself a significant, though ultimately insufficient, amount of popular support simply by spending at unprecedented rates.

Rather than decisively declaring one factor "the real story" and other factors "worthless," we analysts should acknowledge the extraordinary complexity of multi-candidate nomination contests. It can be tempting to declare Biden's comeback inevitable now that it's happened, but nominations are much less predictable and more contingent than that. All of us are students rather than masters of this subject, and the unusual events of the past few days have shown how much there always is to learn.