Welcome to a primary turned upside down.
Ten days ago, Bernie Sanders was the frontrunner, Joe Biden’s campaign was seen as potentially in free fall, and Mike Bloomberg was rising in the polls and seen as a potential savior of moderate Democrats. Today, Biden is undeniably back as a political force and a frontrunner, Bloomberg is a joke, and Elizabeth Warren has been relegated to the afterthought status.
Biden finished second in the Nevada caucus, getting his legs under him, and then romped in the South Carolina primary just a few days ago. That set off a wave of consolidation and endorsements in his favor, but it was widely believed at the time that Biden’s surge might be coming too late. He had no time to raise money or run television ads in Super Tuesday states and had no real campaign infrastructure.
Now, Biden is back. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are out of the race. It’s not clear that either Bloomberg or Warren can last for long. Sanders looks strong in the West and Southwest, Biden is dominant in the South, New England is divided, and the ultimate victory will hinge on states in the midwest and mid-Atlantic that haven’t voted yet.
But for now, here’s who won and who lost on Super Tuesday.
Winner: Joe Biden
The former vice president’s campaign was nearly left for dead just a couple of weeks ago after disastrous performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. He bounced back strong in South Carolina on Saturday and cruised to further wins all across the South on Tuesday night. The evening started with a big Biden win in Virginia, and he followed through with additional victories in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and even Massachusetts and Minnesota.
Sanders, of course, had wins of his own including most notably in California (where the exact result won’t be known for days as mail-in votes are counted). But this was Sanders’ shot to knock Biden out and assemble an insurmountable delegate lead. And he didn’t do it. Instead, Biden is now clearly on track to win.
The nominating contest is by no means done, but Sanders now has his biggest delegate mine in the rearview mirror while the large and seemingly anti-Sanders state of Florida is still out there for Biden to pluck. The former VP’s fundraising is also extremely likely to improve now that it’s clear he has a real chance to win and now that there’s nobody out there competing with him for anti-Sanders dollars. Biden is once again the frontrunner and the odds-on favorite to be Democrats’ 2020 nominee. What a difference a week makes.
Loser: Mike Bloomberg
By the same token, the former New York City mayor’s campaign has transformed rather suddenly from potential savior of the moderate wing of the party to potential wrecker.
Bloomberg didn’t do well enough to seriously spoil anything for Biden, but he did pick up dribs and drabs of delegates here and there that Biden would almost certainly have otherwise won. Instead of using his money on things moderate Democrats would like — anti-Trump ads, support for down-ballot Democrats, or anti-Sanders ads — he’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars on vote-splitting that is objectively helpful to Sanders.
Bloomberg will undoubtedly come under increasing pressure in days to come to reconsider this course of action and drop out.
But unlike a normal politician, a billionaire septuagenarian can’t really be pressured or induced to leave the race if he doesn’t want to. His next steps are, however, one of the big known unknowns of the race at this point. If he exits and turns and his operation into a de facto pro-Biden super PAC that could be very helpful to the former VP. If he stays in and keeps crowding the moderate lane, it could be the opposite.
Winner: The Party (Sort of) Deciding
American political punditry has been on a years-long see-saw about the theory that “the party decides” who will win presidential nominating contests.
The basic idea of the thesis is that elite party actors can and normally will coordinate to ensure that a broadly acceptable nominee rather than a narrowly factional one will become the nominee. The terms of the thesis were badly violated by Donald Trump’s win in 2016, though with the twist that at the end of the day Republicans elites really didn’t coordinate at all despite some clear antipathy for Trump.
For months the 2020 contest seemed to be following the 2016 GOP cycle. Sanders didn’t have a majority in the polls, but he was clearly leading against a big field of ideologically similar mainstream Democrats. Out of that crew, Biden was consistently the strongest in the polls but he was a much weaker in-person performer than Pete Buttigieg, didn’t have Amy Klobuchar’s strong electability track record, or Bloomberg’s fortune. The party was unable to decide.
Everything changed this past weekend when Biden’s success in South Carolina led to a widespread realization that the best way to stop Sanders was to unify around Biden. Buttigieg and Klobuchar answered the call, dropping out to endorse Biden. Beto O’Rourke also threw in with Biden providing him more momentum, and he picked up a passel of late endorsements in Virginia as well.
The party decided, albeit in a late and fairly odd way.
I’ve seen Mike Bloomberg ads on TV. You’ve probably seen Mike Bloomberg ads on TV. Mike Bloomberg has been everywhere, spending around $410 million on advertising to date in this election. To put this in context, that’s more money than Clinton and Trump spent on ads in all of the 2016 cycle combined.
His entire theory of victory depended on the idea that a massive airwave deluge could persuade people after skipping the first four primary states. He was banking that he could effectively buy the Democratic primary, in a way that would prove that American democracy was in one important up for sale — and thus controlled by the people wealthy enough to purchase it.
It’s hard to overstate just how embarrassingly Bloomberg’s theory of victory flopped. In Virginia, for example, Bloomberg spent $18 million on ads and came in a distant third. Joe Biden spent about $360,000 on ads, two percent of Bloomberg’s total, and came away with a runaway victory.
Why Bloomberg’s ad strategy failed is the sort of question that’ll birth a hundred American Journal of Political Science submissions. But broadly, it seems like there are two main theories for why this happened.
First, it seems like the early states really do matter. Biden’s poll numbers surged nationwide and in Super Tuesday states after his South Carolina victory, suggesting that Democratic voters were really looking to their peers in the first four states’ opinions to help make up their mind. Momentum may be a myth in football, but seems real in Democratic primaries — and ads can’t buy it.
Second, Bloomberg’s debate performances ranged from unimpressive to abysmal. After the Nevada debate, where Elizabeth Warren hammered Bloomberg on his history of inappropriate comments towards female employees, his numbers started going down. Debates don’t matter in the general election, but it seems like they do in the primary.
Put together, this seems like an argument for the vital importance of what political types call earned media: not paid advertising, but coverage from media organizations you don’t own. That’s something that’s much harder for a would-be oligarch to buy — even if they already own a media outlet.
Winner: Ideological lanes
Thinking of the Democratic primary as split between a “progressive” lane featuring Sanders and Warren and a “moderate” lane featuring the other contenders is simplistic and reductive. That said, on Tuesday night it looked like the kind of simplistic and reductive account that actually provides a pretty good shorthand for what’s going on.
It’s very difficult to explain the results unless droves of people who were previously supporting Klobuchar and Buttigieg decided to flock to Biden’s standard even though they oftentimes looked demographically more like Elizabeth Warren’s voters.
Of course the fact that Klobuchar and Buttigieg explicitly endorsed Biden likely helped this process along. Still, endorsements aren’t mind control and it wouldn’t have been crazy for fans of the brainy mayor to decide that Warren rather than Biden was more of a kindred figure. But … they didn’t. Instead clear evidence of lane-thinking emerges as a moderate bloc consolidated behind Biden and plowed to victory.
Loser: Bernie Sanders’s black outreach
Sanders did very poorly with African Americans in 2016, allowing Hillary Clinton to wrack up huge margins in southern states and giving her a nice boost in several Midwestern and Northeastern ones.
As Bernie geared up to run again in 2020, he was well-aware that this was a big problem and worked hard on trying to solve it. Building on his kernel of strength with the youngest cohort of African Americans he promised a big boost in funding to HBCUs. He worked with economist Darrick Hamilton to try to better tackle the specifically racial aspects of economic inequality. He began routinely referring to his movement as a “multi-generational, multi-racial coalition” and stopped doing things like apologizing for Trump voters’ racial prejudice and complaining about “identity politics.”
Bernie 2.0 really does seem to be doing a lot better with Latinos than the original version (offsetting this, he is doing worse with rural working class whites than he did in 2016) but he got steamrolled in the South yet again. Indeed, if anything he seems to be doing somewhat worse in Southern states.
North Carolina was the one Southern primary Bernieworld was feeling good about, before the moderates consolidated, pointing to his 41% share there in 2016.
Early exits have him at 24% there tonight. #SuperTuesday
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) March 4, 2020
Winner: People who tuned out the whole last month
If you look at where the polling averages stood on February 3, they said Joe Biden had a comfortable lead over Bernie Sanders who was in a strong second place. Biden was the front-runner, and Sanders was a strong insurgent with a punter’s chance of winning.
When people wake up on March 4, that’s exactly the situation they’ll find — Biden has a lead, and Sanders is offering a strong challenge.
In between those two dates, lots of things happened. Biden finished a pathetic fourth place in Iowa. Buttigieg, the winner, earned himself a mini-surge. Bloomberg who’d been waiting in the wings for a couple of months suddenly started scoring endorsements as an emergency “Stop Bernie” figure. Amy Klobuchar had a moment after a decent New Hampshire performance. Biden finished in fifth and appeared to be totally collapsing. Sanders won Nevada and seemed to be cruising to victory, with just a small inevitable speed bump in South Carolina to clear. Then Biden won by more than expected and things started to snowball.
It was a wild ride, but it landed us almost exactly where we were a month ago. If you spent all this time ignoring Iowa and Nevada and all the takes and speculation, you’d be in fine shape.