Biden Takes Command

Votes are still being counted on Super Tuesday, and they’ll continue to be counted for several days, especially in California and Colorado. The details of the final results will matter. But from what’s in now and what good projections suggest, it’s pretty clear that only former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders still have any chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination — and that Biden now has a significant advantage.

Biden has already won several states, but more importantly he’s probably going to come out of Tuesday’s voting with a lead of more than 50 delegates. That’s despite the fact that the geography of the Super Tuesday primaries tended to favor Sanders a little bit. When Sanders and Biden were more or less tied recently in a forecasting model built by the statistics website FiveThirtyEight, that model also had Sanders gaining roughly a 50-delegate margin over Biden. For Biden to reverse that calculation means he’s emerging as the clear favorite.





Beyond that, it appears that the Tuesday results significantly understated Biden’s advantage, because a lot of early voting happened before the former vice president recovered from his weak February start in Iowa and New Hampshire. That is, Biden did much better in Election Day voting than overall.

That said, only a third of the delegates will be chosen after all the latest votes are counted, and so there’s plenty of time for Sanders to rally, beginning with six more states that vote on March 10. 

But he’s going to have a seriously uphill battle. It’s likely that polling over the next few days will show a national lead for Biden, and leads in key upcoming states. And Biden is going to have the resources to extend that lead, because over the last several days Democratic party actors have decided in his favor, as can be seen in the flood of endorsements he received beginning after his crucial second place finish in Nevada on Feb. 22. That party support will mean that his campaign from this point on will be fully funded, will have no shortage of expertise and volunteer hours, and will have plenty of surrogates to help him get positive media coverage. These are all things that Biden was short of in the early states — and even in the Super Tuesday events, where he was massively outspent by Sanders.

Not only is Biden taking a delegate lead, but he’s also significantly improved his chances of winning a delegate majority and therefore clinching the nomination by the end of the primaries and caucuses. Again, it’s early in the count, but it appears that ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is going fall short of winning 150 delegates. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren will have a total of 100 or so, including those she won earlier. Add to that the delegates won by candidates who have already exited, and there will be fewer than 300 delegates going to candidates other than Biden and Sanders. That means that if Bloomberg and Warren drop out and win no more delegates, Biden would need to beat Sanders by something below 300 to reach a majority, even without counting any delegates he might pick up from the dropouts. (For the details on how this works, see Josh Putnam’s excellent explanation). After tonight, that seems quite possible. 

What happened? The problem for Sanders remains that he has run a factional candidacy, in many cases aggressively so. He’s done little to reach out to groups that didn’t back him in 2016, and his staff and enthusiastic supporters have done plenty to antagonize everyone who isn’t already with him. Including, in many cases, natural allies. As a result, Democratic party actors outside of his faction were highly resistant to accepting him as their nominee. They weren’t all that enthusiastic about Biden, either — he had far less support (measured in endorsements and other indications of party-actor support) than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, or sitting Vice President Al Gore had in 2000, or former Vice President Walter Mondale had in 1984. That’s one of the reasons there were so many candidates this time around. When there’s no clear choice, party actors tend to use the early primaries as sources of information about the candidates, and while Iowa and New Hampshire were muddled, Nevada and then South Carolina sent very clear signals to everyone who was looking for an alternative to Sanders. Which turned out to be an awful lot of Democratic party actors, and then eventually quite a few Democratic voters.

The best hope for Sanders is that he still has an enthusiastic faction on his side, and Biden still has the same weaknesses that made party actors unenthusiastic about him in the first place. The race isn’t over yet. Still, Biden’s lead is real, and he’s going to be hard to beat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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