A Super Tuesday Sweep

Biden and Sanders begin two-person race for the nomination

577
Illustration by Ry X

In a stunning resurgence, former vice president Joe Biden dominated Super Tuesday, winning 10 of the 14 states and racking up a plurality of delegates. A significant victory in South Carolina just three days earlier consolidated party support around his candidacy, creating momentum that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was unable to overcome. 

The dominoes rapidly fell in line for the Democratic Party, which spent the last year bemoaning Sanders’ rise and scrambling to find an alternative candidate to coalesce around. A last-minute endorsement of Biden from influential South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn proved crucial — nearly half of voters in the state said his endorsement was important to them. 

In the days between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, two of Biden’s biggest ideological rivals, dropped out of the race and endorsed him. He surged in national polling, nearly regaining all the ground he lost after the first three states. 

For the Sanders campaign, Super Tuesday was nothing short of a disappointment. Biden’s dismal showing in earlier states and the gridlock of moderate rivals signaled that Sanders could secure a clear plurality of delegates on March 3, but the swift unification of the centrist wing of the party dashed any such hopes. 

About half of voters in southern and eastern states chose their candidate in the last few days, breaking decisively for Biden. His sweeping victory is all the more remarkable considering his lack of campaign infrastructure and advertising in Super Tuesday states. Sanders, Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren had considerable advantages in both areas. 

Across all Super Tuesday states, voters preferred a candidate who can beat President Trump to one who agrees with them on policy issues. An aggregation of exit polls shows Biden won among these voters by 20 points, a sign that Sanders must sharpen his messaging around defeating Trump if he wants to recover in upcoming states. 

Illustration by Ry X

On Wednesday morning, Bloomberg dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden. As recently as last week, it seemed plausible that the former New York City mayor could be the moderate who emerged from the pack, but poor debate performances and Biden’s renewal in South Carolina cratered his chances. With Super Tuesday delegates still being allocated, Bloomberg has only 53, far behind Biden and Sanders, who both have over 500. 

While the Biden campaign may have lacked the organization and funding of its rivals, the former vice president’s wins in the south were largely expected. High popularity among older Black voters — the core of the party’s southern electorate — made Biden a heavy favorite there. But wins in states such as Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, Oklahoma and Texas delivered knockout blows to his rivals. 

One such rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, finished a distant third in her home state of Massachusetts, 12 points behind Biden and five behind Sanders. If she followed the path of Klobuchar and Buttigieg, she could have avoided the embarrassment of a double-digit loss in her home state and aided her ideological ally, Sanders, in states where she earned a significant portion of the vote. Instead, she played spoiler.

The biggest surprise of the night may have been Texas. The Sanders campaign made Texas one of its electoral linchpins, pouring millions of dollars into bilingual advertising and organizing efforts in hopes of turning out the Latinx vote. It wasn’t enough. Though Sanders won the Latinx vote by a resounding 20 points, Biden carried Texas by four percent, an upset victory in a state Sanders badly needed to win.
Once the dust settles, the functional impact of Super Tuesday will be to make the 2020 primary a two-person race. Sanders’ win in delegate-rich California will keep him close to Biden, and he could still stand to benefit if Warren drops out before the next round of voting on March 10. The whirlwind events of the past week prove the dynamics of this race can change promptly — and in unexpected directions. Buckle up.