WASHINGTON – Joe Biden didn’t just stay alive Tuesday.
He had an unprecedented comeback, winning the majority of states – including some where he hadn’t campaigned – as late-deciding voters fueled the Democratic Party’s consolidation behind an alternative to Bernie Sanders.
As the results from state after state poured in, the narrative surrounding the former vice president’s campaign was entirely rewritten. After enduring embarrassing results in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a bevy of media coverage suggesting his campaign was all but over, Biden emerged from the fray with momentum that analysts said could propel him in upcoming states such as Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi.
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Biden not only delivered big in competitive states, but also pulled upsets. He swept the South, relying heavily on African American support in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. He even trounced his opponents in Massachusetts, the home state of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and where Sanders, who hails from neighboring Vermont, had campaigned heavily.
And in the biggest upset of the night, he beat Sanders in delegate-rich Texas.
Just a few days ago, it was uncertain if Biden could stay competitive enough to stop the Vermont senator from effectively locking up the nomination on Super Tuesday.
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“We were told that when you got to Super Tuesday it might be over. But it may be over for the other guy,” Biden said to a small but enthusiastic crowd on a Los Angeles basketball court when the polls were still open there but after he’d already won a slew of states. “I’m here to report, we are very much alive.”
Sanders won California, the biggest prize of the night. But Biden dominated in most of the other states.
Momentum that money can’t buy
Biden had been outspent and out-organized. Still, the desire by many Democrats to coalesce behind one alternative to Sanders gave the former vice president the momentum that money can’t buy as the party tries to pick the strongest candidate to take on President Donald Trump.
“It’s a comeback, perhaps one of the biggest of all time, and also proof that Democrats can be organized strategically if they set their minds to it,” tweeted Rachel Bitecofer, an analyst and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington.
Virginia and North Carolina gave the first signs that Biden got a huge boost not just from his decisive South Carolina victory Saturday but also from the consolidation behind him from party leaders such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former competitors Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
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Those endorsements, and others, came Monday, after many voters had already cast early ballots for the biggest day on the primary calendar.
Still, both Virginia and North Carolina were called for Biden as the polls closed.
‘”Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? That’s been the story of his life,” Marc Broklawski, a Democratic National Committee member from Virginia said at a gathering of Biden supporters in Alexandria, Va.
Early exit polls in Virginia showed Biden won among whites without a college degree, a demographic Sanders did best with in the first four states. In North Carolina, the two were running close with that group, exit polls suggested.
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That’s important as the race moves into the Rust Belt where Michigan is the top prize on March 10 and Illinois and Ohio have huge delegate caches a week later. Those states will be a test of how Sanders’ appeal to blue-collar voters, where his longstanding opposition to trade deals is a strength, matches up against Biden’s ability to connect with those who share his families’ working class roots in Scranton, Pa.
Biden has already started running ads in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi touting praise from former President Barack Obama.
He should get a boost March 17 in Florida where Sanders’ positive comments about a literacy program in Fidel Castro’s Cuba have not gone over well with the state’s Cuban American community,
Sanders is hammering away at Biden’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq, his record on trade issues and Social Security.
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“One of us has spent his entire life fighting against cuts in Social Security,” Sanders said at his victory celebration in his home state of Vermont. “One of us led the opposition to disastrous trade agreements which cost us millions of good paying jobs – and that’s me.”
While Sanders argues he has the strongest general election message, many Democrats who united behind Biden worry that Sanders – a democratic socialist – is a risky choice to put up against Trump and could also hurt Democrats in down-ballot races.
A rocket, not a firewall
The push to pick a center-left candidate to take on Sanders surged after Biden ran away with South Carolina following disappointing showings in the first three states.
“South Carolina wasn’t a firewall, it was a rocket,” tweeted John Weaver, a Republican consultant who worked for President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.
Super Tuesday confirmed that the race is now squarely a contest between Biden and Sanders.
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Warren didn’t win any states. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg carried only the territory of American Samoa.
Bloomberg wasn’t even a significant contender in Virginia despite spending heavily there – as he did elsewhere – and despite the good will generated through his past financial contributions that helped Democrats capture the state legislature in 2018.
“Obviously Bloomberg and Warren are not long for this world,” Democratic consultant James Carville said on CNN.
Tuesday was the first time Bloomberg, who skipped the first two states, was on the ballot. He’d entered the race late, when Biden’s campaign was faltering. But his shaky debate performances, where he was a top target of Warren, kept many Democrats from seeing him as a savior.
“If Michael Bloomberg hadn’t made it on the debate stage, he would be pulling a significant chunk of votes tonight. He’d be hurting Biden. Bernie would probably be the nominee,” tweeted Danny Barefoot, a partner at the political consulting firm Anvil Strategies. “Warren maybe indirectly saved Biden by exposing Bloomberg on live TV. Politics is wild.”
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As votes were still being counted in later time zones, Bloomberg told supporters he’s pressing onward.
“No matter how many delegates we win tonight, we have done something no one thought was possible,” he said, to applause from his supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla. “In just three months, we’ve gone from 1% in the polls to being a contender for the Democratic nomination.”
Speaking to a crowd in Detroit Tuesday, Warren urged supporters to forget about strategic voting and stay strong when Michiganders go to the polls next week.
“Cast a vote that will make you proud,” she said. “Vote from your heart. And vote for the person who you think will make the best president of the United States.”
Contributing: Kathleen Grey, Detroit Free Press; Ryan Miller and Chris Woodyard, USA Today.