Primary Heats Up as Super Tuesday Looms

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Following Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, the Democratic presidential field heads into the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary divided behind its frontrunner, Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Senator’s 26-point victory in Nevada over second place finisher Joe Biden is his third victory in as many states and accelerates his momentum going into the last primary before Super Tuesday. 

In one of the first electoral materializations of the “multiracial, working class coalition” Sanders referenced throughout his 2020 campaign, he amassed 50 percent of the Latinx vote in Nevada. According to entrance polls, he also won with white people, people under 64, those with and without college degrees, women and independents. His breadth of support suggests that he won in Iowa and New Hampshire despite their overwhelmingly white electorates, not because of them. 

For former vice president Biden, the results of the Nevada caucuses were satisfactory. After falling flat in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the Biden campaign was in desperate need of a top two finish. His 10-point edge over Sanders among Black voters is also a good sign for Biden, who now moves into South Carolina with something resembling momentum. The same cannot be said for the rest of the field. 

Second place finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire gave Pete Buttigieg fleeting momentum, but support among minority voters never emerged in polls for the former South Bend mayor. Saturday confirmed that data, as Buttigieg received 2 and 11 percent among Black and Latinx voters, respectively. 

His road ahead won’t be any easier. Black voters make up dominant shares of the electorate in South Carolina and southern Super Tuesday states, with Latinx voters in similar positions in Texas and California.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t win any delegates for the second contest in a row, finishing with 10 percent of the vote in Nevada. Her high point in the state came during the Feb. 19 Las Vegas debate.

Her castigation of Michael Bloomberg and other candidates on stage garnered her millions of dollars of much-needed donations, but Nevada’s new early voting system effectively negated any post-debate boost she may have received. About 70,000 of the 105,000 votes that were collected were cast before Warren’s big night. 

As the primary nears an inflection point, the scattered finishes behind Senator Sanders have left the door open to former New York City mayor Bloomberg to seize delegates on Super Tuesday. 

In only three months, Bloomberg has poured an unprecedented $450 million into advertising alone — spending that vaulted him near the top of Super Tuesday state and national polling. Poor debate performances in Nevada and South Carolina seem to have at least stunted his momentum in national polls, but his personal fortune could prove  overwhelming.

It remains to be seen if Bloomberg’s strategy of foregoing the first four primary contests and flooding later states with ads will pay dividends, but low support among minority voters for Warren, Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, along with Biden’s lackluster start, opens a path for exactly  that. 

The “first or worst” dynamic at play is similar to the one that prevailed in the 2016 Republican presidential primary contest. Trailing a frontrunner, candidates in a splintered field are calling for each other to drop out, but no one has been able to consolidate support over the first three states. Further, with 34 percent of the delegates up for grabs in just one week, candidates other than Sanders have everything to gain and little to lose.

The next seven days could put a de facto end to the 2020 primary. If Sanders carries his momentum from Nevada to similarly diverse states on Super Tuesday and his competitors continue to block a clear alternative from emerging, Sanders will have the nomination all but locked up.