Tuesday’s second round of big Democratic primary contests will award 365 delegates, and according to the polls, former Vice President Joe Biden is on track have a very good night.
The 2020 Democratic presidential race has winnowed in recent weeks, and now features just three candidates: Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. With Gabbard polling at no higher than 2 percent in recent national polls, however, the race — which began with a historically large and diverse field — is now really between Biden and Sanders.
Biden has gained a lot of momentum in recent weeks: Following a massive win in South Carolina and a near sweep of Super Tuesday, the former vice president has reclaimed the mantle of frontrunner.
Recent national polls have Biden leading Sanders by double digits — an advantage that has increased with each successive poll. A Morning Consult poll of 961 likely Democratic primary voters taken just before Super Tuesday found Biden leading the field by 8 percentage points (with a margin of error of 4 percentage points); Morning Consult’s most recent poll, taken March 5, recorded Biden’s advantage at 16 percentage points (with a margin of error of 3 percentage points).
And the most recent poll — taken March 5-8 by Quinnipiac University, with a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points — recorded an even larger lead: 19 percentage points, with Biden receiving 54 percent support and Sanders 34 percent (Gabbard received 2 percent).
These are significant leads, and they put Biden in a strong position going into Tuesday’s seven contests. This national polling reflects state polling as well — while some of Tuesday’s contests are expected to be close, pollsters found Biden leading in all of them.
Michigan is Tuesday’s biggest prize — and Biden appears poised to win it
Sanders and his campaign have been simultaneously projecting optimism about the senator’s chances in Michigan while lowering expectations.
Sunday on ABC’s This Week, when asked by George Stephanopoulos whether he considered Michigan a “make or break” state for him, Sanders said, “No, I don’t think so.”
But bringing up his 2016 primary win in the state, he added, “Last time around in 2016, I was told, impossible, you can’t win Michigan. In fact, the day before the election, we were 20 points down in some of these polls. I think we got a great shot to win in Michigan.”
Sanders likely cited this history because he is again down in the polls — some of them by a more than 20 percentage point margin.
The best recent poll for Sanders, taken March 7-9 by AtlasIntel, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, puts Biden ahead of him by 8 percentage points. And the worst (and most recent), a Target Insyght poll taken on March 8 found Biden with a 41 percentage point lead with a 4 percentage point margin of error.
The trouble for Sanders with polls like this is that even if they are wrong, eking out a small win in the state won’t do him much good: He needs a big victory in order to turn the tide in the delegate race. It’s not just that Biden is expected to win in Missouri and Mississippi — it’s also that upcoming contests afford Sanders little chance to make up a delegate deficit, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has explained. The next big day of contests comes on March 17 — and that day’s biggest prizes, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio, are expected to go for Biden (Florida and Illinois by large margins, according to recent polls).
And those primaries will be followed by a string of states that favor Biden, from those in which he has home-field advantage (Delaware and Pennsylvania) to those with favorable demographics, like Georgia and Louisiana. Sanders has some contests that should be more favorable to him, like the Puerto Rico primary, but these do not yield very many delegates. Puerto Rico, for instance, has 51 compared to Florida’s 219.
All this means Michigan represents Sanders’s last opportunity for a while to score a big win and to shift the narrative of the race away from Biden’s inevitability back to his insurgency.
Some experts, like Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, believe a Sanders win, while unlikely, could still be possible.
“Biden appears to have the advantage because he is doing well among some groups that Sanders won four years ago,” Murray said in a press release. “But as we learned in 2016, Michigan can defy expectations.”
In 2016, Sanders narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in the state — a surprise victory given she led him in the polls by an average of 30 percentage points. Exit polls showed that win was powered by independents and young voters, but according to Politico’s Tim Alberta, also by low turnout among demographics that tended to favor Clinton, particularly black voters.
It isn’t clear a similar outcome will happen this time. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, turnout has been on the rise in 2020 primary contests overall compared to 2016 — and the young voters Sanders relied on to power his 2016 Michigan victory have not been coming out for him in large numbers in the contests so far. Should Michigan follow these two trends, Sanders’s chances of bucking the polls again would not appear to be high.
Monmouth’s polling found that 23 percent of likely Democratic voters in the state have not yet made up their minds about whom they want to vote for. Should Sanders find some way to win over these late-deciding voters, he could, in theory, overtake Biden. But while a groundswell of eleventh-hour endorsements has helped Biden in recent contests, there have not been any major events that would seem to push people Sanders’s way in recent days.
Even if Sanders loses the state, as pollsters expect, Michigan is not — as the candidate himself has said — make-or-break. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained, a candidate needs 1,991 pledged delegates to become the Democratic Party nominee on the first ballot — that is, without party leaders, also known as superdelegates, weighing in. That number is a majority of the primary’s 3,979 pledged delegates.
Again, the Democratic Party awards its delegates proportionally at the statewide and congressional district levels, meaning narrow victories can lead to candidates essentially splitting delegates in half. With delegate counts as they stand now, it is possible, depending on how the vote is split in states to come, that neither candidate would be able to reach that majority.
So while an unexpected win in Michigan would put Sanders’s campaign in a far better position than a loss, losing the state doesn’t mean he has no chance of victory — or that he would miss his chance to make his case at a contested convention.
Overall, Biden is poised to pick up wins where it counts
Tuesday’s voting doesn’t feature any states with as many delegates as California, but there are three that have far more delegates than the others: Missouri, Mississippi, and Michigan. And according to the polls, Biden will win all three.
Missouri, which has 36 delegates, has an electorate that plays to one of Biden’s strengths: his ability to attract older voters. Super Tuesday exit polls showed Biden dominated the older vote: 42 percent of those ages 45 to 64 voted for the former vice president, as did 48 percent of those 65 or older. This makes Missouri’s Democratic primary electorate — which in the 2016 Democratic primary was 50 percent above age 50, and is in general more moderate — one Biden ought to do well with.
And all post-Super Tuesday Missouri polls we have suggest Biden will have a commanding victory in the state.
A March 4-7 Data for Progress online poll of 348 likely Democratic primary voters placed Biden 30 percentage points ahead of Sanders, with 62 percent support to the senator’s 32 percent. The poll has a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points, a margin that protects Biden’s lead. It is important to note its conclusions might be slightly skewed, as it was taken while Sen. Elizabeth Warren was still in the race. Warren received only 4 percent support, however, and as Vox’s Dylan Scott has explained, her supporters are likely to split fairly evenly between Biden and Sanders, meaning her inclusion shouldn’t significantly affect these results.
A March 4-5 Missouri Scout/Remington Research Group poll of likely Democratic primary voters found similar results — Biden ahead of Sanders by 22 percentage points (with a 3 percentage point margin of error). And the most recently fielded poll, from new pollster Swayable (taken on March 9), found Biden with a 21 percentage point lead, with a 3 percentage point margin of error. All this suggests Biden can expect a rather resounding victory in the state Tuesday.
Data for Progress performed the first Mississippi poll since July 2019. Taken March 4-7, it suggests Biden will have a decisive win in the state: He was found to have 77 percent support there compared to Sanders’s 22 percent — a lead of 55 percentage points, and one that makes the poll’s 5.1 percentage point margin of error inconsequential.
Swayable’s polling found results almost as striking: a 40 percentage point lead and 68 percent support for Biden; and 28 percent support for Sanders; the poll had a 4 percentage point margin of error.
These results align with historical trends. As Vox’s Li Zhou has explained, Mississippi’s results typically mirror South Carolina’s due to the states’ similar demographic makeup, and Biden had a major win there, picking up 48 percent of the vote.
Like South Carolina, Mississippi has a Democratic electorate that is older, again playing to Biden’s strength, and one that is majority black — 71 percent of the 2016 Mississippi Democratic primary electorate was black, and 50 percent was above the age of 50.
Ahead of Super Tuesday, there was some question as to whether Biden’s support among black voters — something he often boasts about on the campaign trail — was beginning to erode. Some polls suggested that was the case, but Super Tuesday exit polls told a different story: Last Tuesday, 58 percent of black voters backed Biden compared to the 17 percent who voted for Sanders.
This would suggest that there is reason to believe Biden could very well win near 77 percent of the vote in Mississippi (if not more), taking the majority of the state’s 68 pledged delegates. And should he manage a slightly grander victory than Data for Progress’s pollsters suggest, and win more than 85 percent of the vote at both the state and congressional district level, under DNC rules, he would win all of the state’s pledged delegates.
These near-certain Biden wins would boost his candidacy significantly — winning the majority of the two states’ 104 pledged delegates would go a long way toward helping him build on his current 78 pledged delegate lead over Sanders. But only one state really offers the opportunity for an indomitable advantage or a Sanders comeback: Michigan and its 125 pledged delegates.
Most of the day’s contests look like they’ll be very close
Three other states have contests Tuesday: Washington, Idaho, and North Dakota. Also, voting concludes for Democrats abroad.
Of these contests, the Washington primary has the most pledged delegates, 89.
Sanders was favored to win that state for most of the year, but in recent weeks the tide has turned, and both of the state’s post-Super Tuesday polls now have the candidates essentially tied.
SurveyUSA’s March 4-6 poll of 550 likely voters found Biden to have 36 percent support and Sanders 35 percent; it has a credibility interval of 5.4 percentage points, and like other recent polls, included Warren, who in this survey received 10 percent of the vote. Where those Warren supporters go could obviously has a significant impact on the race’s results, depending on how they are distributed across the state.
A Data for Progress March 4-5 survey of 737 likely Democratic voters found a nearly identical result: 47 percent support for Biden, and 44 percent support for Sanders, with a margin of error of 3.6 (and with support for Warren at 5 percent). Given that both Biden leads fall within the polls’ margins of error, the race would seem to be too close to call — but should the two men split the vote as suggested, each would receive roughly half of Washington’s delegates.
The race in Idaho, and its 20 delegates, also appears as if it could end in a near tie. The most recent poll of the state, from Swayable, was taken March 8-9 and found Biden to have a 15 percentage point advantage on Sanders — however, the poll has a 7 percentage point margin of error, which could mean the two men are about equal. And that was what a Data for Progress March 7-9 survey found: Its results put Biden at 51 percent support and Sanders at 47 percent, with a 5.4 percentage point margin of error, one that, like the Swayable margin of error, does not protect Biden’s lead.
North Dakota is a state that would seem to favor Sanders — he won there in 2016 by almost 40 percentage points. But in 2016, North Dakota held traditional caucuses, which, as we’ve seen with this election cycle’s caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, tend to benefit Sanders. This time, however, the state will hold a “firehouse caucus” — a contest still held by the state party rather than the state government, but that allows caucus-goers to come anytime they like within an eight-hour time frame, caucus by casting a ballot, and then leave. There’s no neighborly debates, viability, or realignment as was the case in Iowa’s caucuses.
And this system, which is essentially a normal primary election, would seem to benefit Biden as it should lead to greater turnout, particularly among those unable to participate in hours-long caucusing due to accessibility, child care, work schedules, or other issues.
We have just one poll of North Dakota, from Swayable. Taken March 7-9, it found Biden to have a 35 percentage point lead on Sanders, with a 9 percentage point margin of error — a margin that does not erase the former vice president’s advantage. This would suggest Biden will win slightly more of the state’s 14 delegates, although North Dakota has so few delegates on offer, even a dominant win here would not change the state of the race.
Similarly, only a few delegates will be awarded from the Democrats abroad primary — 13. Voting began on Super Tuesday and will conclude this Tuesday. There have been no polls of this primary, and it would be a difficult population to survey given it is literally spread around the world, but in 2016, Sanders had a decisive win over Clinton, taking 69 percent of the vote. It isn’t really clear whether he will be able to repeat this performance; FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast has the race as a tie. However, its analysts predict Biden will receive 46 percent of the vote and Sanders will win 45 percent.
All these close contests will likely mean Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi will have a far greater impact on the race’s delegate totals, as Biden and Sanders would appear poised to more or less split all the other delegates the day has on offer. This means Biden will likely “win” the day — thanks to Missouri and Mississippi at the very least — and build on his current delegate lead.
Sanders has said he “certainly would not consider dropping out” should he have a less-than-stellar showing Tuesday, and really, he has little reason to — he has the opportunity for a one-on-one debate against Biden on Sunday.