BOSTON – Riding a late-moving surge that stretched from the South, East Coast and into the Midwest, Joe Biden upended the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in one night and supplanted Bernie Sanders as the front-runner.
Defying polls that showed him trailing less than a week ago, the former vice president dominated Super Tuesday and racked up wins in 10 of 14 states, building a lead in delegates over Vermont’s independent senator, who had seemed poised to build an insurmountable lead himself.
The turnaround suddenly puts Sanders on his heels. To make up his deficit, he needs to win states by wide margins to limit the delegates Biden could accumulate in those same states.
And the map works against him.
Biden could be favored in three of the four largest states that vote Tuesday: Missouri (68 delegates), where a poll in January showed him leading by 25 percentage points; Mississippi (36 delegates), which has a large African American population and where Hillary Clinton clobbered Sanders 82%-17% in 2016; and Michigan (125 delegates), which Sanders narrowly won in 2016, but a poll this week showed Biden 6 percentage points ahead even before his Super Tuesday resurgence.
There are spots of hope for Sanders, an anti-establishment democratic socialist who campaigns on a political revolution.
Sanders, who outperformed Biden in the West, leads polls in Washington (89 delegates), which votes the same night. He could fare well in North Dakota and Idaho, but those states have just a combined 34 delegates.
“He’ll keep going on, but last night was pretty decisive in terms of reaction to Bernie Sanders as the potential nominee,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic campaign operative. “I’m not sure how or where Bernie can turn it from here. That does not mean that he won’t try and that it won’t be a long, hard fight. But in the end, I don’t see where the window turns for him.”
The race arguably gets even tougher for Sanders on March 17 in primaries in three large states, each with hundreds of delegates at stake: Florida, 219 delegates; Illinois, 155; Ohio, 136; and Arizona, 67.
Biden holds double-digit polling leads in Florida, where Sanders lost by more than 30 percentage points to Clinton in 2016 and where his comments about Fidel Castro complicated his outlook. The other leading candidate in Florida, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, dropped out of the presidential race Wednesday and put his support behind Biden.
A poll last month had Biden trailing Sanders by 8 percentage points in Illinois. It was taken at the peak of Sanders’ national lead after Biden’s early stumbles. Illinois and Ohio have sizable African American voting populations, and black voters have overwhelmingly supported Biden in earlier races. Biden led in Arizona in polls taken last fall, but the race has changed considerably, and Sanders could get a boost from Latino voters, who have backed him heartily in other states.
Michigan could be Sanders’ best shot to climb back
Sanders’ next campaign stops include rallies in Phoenix on Thursday, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Friday and Saturday, and Rockford, Illinois, next Tuesday.
Michigan presents Sanders’ best shot to change the trajectory of the race, according to Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University, given the senator’s 50%-48% victory over Clinton there four years ago and the demographics of the state.
“He’s going to be expected to have a good showing,” Grossman said. “And I think because he won last time and this is a general election swing state that it will be the main story, and the expectation is Sanders needs to win.”
Grossman said two factors could hurt Sanders’ chances – the lack of a competitive Republican primary that attracted some potential Clinton voters in 2016, and evidence that suggests Sanders is doing worse among white working-class voters than in 2016 but better among Latino voters. He called that a “bad trade in Michigan.”
“If the election were held today, (Biden’s) certainly the favorite (in Michigan),” Grossman said. “However, seven days, as we just learned this last week, is a long time. So there is still an opportunity for Sanders to shift the narrative.”
Biden’s big night came thanks to last-minute voters coalescing around his campaign after his blowout win in South Carolina on Saturday that solidified him as the main challenger to Sanders. It brought exits and endorsements from Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as Rep. Beto O’Rourke. D-Texas, a onetime presidential contender.
The former vice president dominated among Democrats who voted on Election Day rather than early. He won Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maine where he didn’t have organized campaigns, never visited and ran no television ads. Particularly troubling for Sanders: He lost three states – Minnesota, Oklahoma and Maine – that he carried in the 2016 primary.
Above all, it was Biden’s strength among African Americans – the most reliable constituency in the Democratic coalition – that gave him landslide wins in South Carolina, then Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. He won more than 60% of votes from African Americans, exit polls found.
After falling far short with black voters against Clinton in 2016, Sanders tried to make inroads in the African American community. But Biden’s commanding wins demonstrated a personal political brand – one tied to his association with Barack Obama – that was underestimated in the news media.
Sanders: A race about ‘which side are you on?’
Sanders has an enormous campaign war chest, the product of an unmatched grassroots fundraising machine, to mount a campaign for the long haul. He has an enthusiastic base of young voters and liberals in his corner.
But after winning popular votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders hoped for a big win in delegate-rich Texas and a landslide in the biggest draw, California, where his campaign invested enormous resources. He ending up losing Texas to Biden and won California but led by less than 10 percentage points.
From his campaign headquarters in Vermont, Sanders said Wednesday, “What this campaign is increasingly about is, which side are you on?” He described his campaign as an unprecedented operation powered by everyday people and Biden’s as one bankrolled by the “corporate world.” Despite trailing Biden in delegates, he said he and Biden go forward “neck-and-neck.”
His remarks echoed his election night speech in which he looked ahead despite his disappointing Super Tuesday, insisting he has “absolute confidence” he will win the nomination. He doubled down on his lines of attack against Biden.
Sanders slammed Biden’s vote for the Iraq War, efforts to cut Social Security and other social programs, support of NAFTA, views on health care and taking campaign contributions from 60 billionaires.
“Does anyone seriously believe that a president backed by the corporate world is going to bring about the changes in this country that working families and the middle class and lower-income people desperately need?” Sanders said.
Asked whether he has to win Michigan, Sanders said his campaign is going in with the “expectation and hope” he will win: “Michigan is obviously an enormously important state, a state I feel very comfortable in.” He said Biden’s support of trade agreements such as NAFTA will be among the issues he pushes in Michigan.
In contrast, Biden signaled where he intends to exert most of his attention – President Donald Trump.
Biden made only a couple of clear references to Sanders during his speech to supporters in California. He said the party needs “a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat” as the nominee.
“People are talking about a revolution. We started a movement,” Biden said in another dig at Sanders. “We’ve increased turnout. The turnout turned out for us! That can take us to a moment where we can do extraordinary, extraordinary things.”
He framed himself as the candidate who can not only beat Trump but win Democratic control of the House and take back the Senate. He said the next president has to unite the country. Though Democrats must beat Trump, he said, they can’t “become like him.”
“We need a president who can fight,” he said. “Make no mistake I can fight – but we need as badly someone who can heal.”
Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.