Barring some kind of shock twist, Tuesday may well be remembered as the night former Vice President Joe Biden closed in on the Democratic nomination for president.
The struggling Sanders campaign badly needed a win in Michigan, the big delegate prize at stake this evening. In theory, it could have been the campaign’s first step toward a comeback — clawing back ground before shifting to states that seemed to favor Biden demographically.
But Biden won Michigan by a clean and seemingly significant margin. That, plus his other swift victories in Missouri and Mississippi, has dealt a serious blow to Sanders’s 2020 hopes. Time is running out, and Biden continues to notch wins and pile up delegates. Looking ahead, the first one-on-one debate between the two candidates, scheduled for March 15, could be something of a last stand for Sanders.
What follows is our sense of what happened tonight — who won, who lost, and what else jumped out beyond the toplines.
Winner: Joe Biden
By a little after 9 pm, the former vice president had wrapped up three states — Missouri, Mississippi, and Michigan. Of those, Michigan is the really important one: not only a significant delegate haul, but a bitter symbolic defeat for Sanders, whose surprise win there in 2016 showed the strength of his insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a blow this defeat is to the Sanders campaign. He isn’t mathematically eliminated yet, but it’s difficult to imagine any kind of serious comeback at this stage in the race.
At this point, the Biden campaign has to be looking forward to the general election. It’s dubious to generalize from primary demographics to general election results, but to the extent that we can, things look promising for Biden. His Michigan win seems to have been powered, in part, by an extremely strong showing among suburban voters — a demographic that, along with black voters, helped Biden win big in Super Tuesday last week as well.
It so happens that these suburban voters pulling the lever for moderates is what handed Democrats the House in the midterm elections.
“This is what happened in 2018,” the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey wrote earlier on Tuesday. “A deluge of voters — including many in the suburbs — filed into churches and community centers across the country to vote for a moderate candidate in an act they viewed as a repudiation of the president.”
Biden’s primary results, then, point to his pathway for victory in November. Truly, it was a rough night for malarkey.
Loser: Bernie Sanders’s black outreach
Bernie Sanders fared poorly with African American voters in 2016, and his team was painfully aware that to win in 2020, they would need to do better. And while Sanders is known to be a stubborn person who is resistant to change, he really, really tried on this one. His national political organization, Our Revolution, aggressively courted a new, younger cohort of left-wing candidates of color. Some of them won, and some went on to be major Sanders surrogates.
He started incorporating rhetoric about the “racist criminal justice system” into his formerly class-first stump speech, he spoke in a more personal way about his youthful involvement in the civil rights movement, and he scored a last-minute endorsement from Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose presidential campaign Sanders boldly endorsed as the mayor of a nearly all-white city in Vermont in the 1980s.
It didn’t work. Sanders has lost in every Southern state, with Mississippi and its very heavily African American electorate likely delivering him his worst result yet.
The problem extends beyond outreach strategies to the fundamental content of Sanders’s political message. As political scientists Chryl Laird and Ismail White show, black Democrats are, on average, less left-wing than white Democrats. At the same time, for historical and sociological reasons that Laird and White explore in their excellent new book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, black Democrats have warmer feelings toward the Democratic Party as an institution.
To summarize the story extremely briefly, most white people are Republicans. Those who are not Republicans have made a very conscious ideological choice to reject conservative ideology, creating a largeish bloc of voters who — like Sanders himself — are left-wing but cool on the Democratic Party. By contrast, black people who participate in black institutional life — who attend black churches, have many black friends, live in black neighborhoods, etc. — tend to have a strong affirmative attachment to the Democratic Party, even as their policy views are diverse.
The essence of Sanders’s message is that progressive-minded people need to overthrow a corrupt Democratic Party establishment in order to remake it in a more ideologically rigorous direction. This is just antithetical to the main currents of black opinion and the main modes of black political engagement.
Consequently, despite years of earnest striving to win over black voters, Sanders ended up over the weekend speaking to a room full of white people in majority-black Flint, Michigan. He was onstage next to Cornell West, a brilliant African American philosopher who likes Sanders but, unlike most black people, is hostile to the Democratic Party.
Loser: Tulsi Gabbard
This is not, in fact, a two-person race. There is a sitting member of the House of Representatives still in the competition: Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She’s an Iraq War veteran, a young woman of color, and a strong debater. If you hadn’t been paying attention to the race until now and you read that description, you’d think she’d be a serious candidate.
Yet Gabbard was a complete non-factor Tuesday night, unable to take advantage of the fact that every other candidate except Biden and Sanders had dropped out. Even worse, it wasn’t a surprise — everyone knew before the results were in that she would not play a significant role.
In addition to being a long shot to start with — representatives hardly have a strong track record of winning their party’s presidential nomination — Gabbard’s failure as a primary candidate can be chalked up to some conspicuous positions that put her out of step with her party. She spent the Obama years attacking the president from the right on terrorism, cozying up to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and praising Russia’s brutal intervention in Syria’s civil war on Assad’s behalf. During the 2020 primary, she got into a bizarre feud with Hillary Clinton — even filing a lawsuit against the party’s 2016 standard-bearer — and voted “present” on impeaching Trump.
In October, she announced she wouldn’t stand for reelection in the House. This is probably smart on her part. An early March poll found that her national approval rating was 30 points underwater among registered Democrats, suggesting she’d have had difficulty fending off a primary challenger, let alone winning the general.
Gabbard has to rank as not only a big loser of tonight but one of the biggest losers of the 2020 primary. The really mystifying question isn’t why her run for president went so badly — but why she’s still in the race at all.
The coronavirus has struck the 2020 campaign: On Tuesday, before the election results started rolling in, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled campaign events. These couldn’t have been easy decisions for the campaigns here in this critical stretch of the primary calendar. Sanders was supposed to campaign in Ohio, which votes next week with 153 delegates on the line, and Biden was scheduled to be in Florida, the big prize on March 17 with 248 delegates.
But the outbreak is that serious, with public health experts emphasizing how important social distancing efforts can be to mitigate the virus’s spread. And Sanders and Biden (along with Trump) are squarely in the most vulnerable demographic, all over 70. Campaign events where they will be expected to shake hands and mingle with the crowds do not fit with those mitigation strategies.
Yet it’s fair to wonder how much this will ultimately matter. The outbreak does not seem to have depressed turnout much among older voters (Biden’s base), given the former veep’s wins on Tuesday. It’s been an open question in political science circles for a while now whether rallies and other campaign events really make all that much difference in the outcome. As was noted in the HuffPollster column in 2016:
[R]allies couldn’t possibly be more indicative of vote preference than polls. In a 2012 survey from Pew Research, 10 percent of Americans reported having attended a political rally or speech. Compare that to 58.6 percent of eligible Americans who voted in that year’s presidential election. Way more people will vote than attend rallies.
If you want more evidence for that theory, look at the Super Tuesday results: Biden barely campaigned in Tennessee (to give one example) and he won by almost 16 points. In some places, the vote is just going to be the vote. Demographics, ideological lean, etc., matter much more than rallies.
The coronavirus has put a pause on the on-the-ground politicking we associate so much with presidential campaigns. But there is reason to doubt whether that will have much effect on the final result.
Winner: The Democratic establishment
It’s hard to believe it’s only been one week since Super Tuesday, as the landscape of the presidential race has shifted dramatically over the past seven days. Biden’s commanding performance that night, including an unexpected win in Texas, has spurred the party’s major donors like former rival Mike Bloomberg, luminaries like former candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (CA) and Cory Booker (NJ), and congressional leaders like Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (IL) to line up behind Biden.
There were two ways that decision could have played out. It could have dramatically backfired. If Sanders had managed a come-from-behind victory in Michigan, and maybe a closer-than-expected performance in Mississippi where Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba endorsed him, then the narrative of a primary that was winding down would have been challenged. Additional undecided Democratic politicians would have hesitated to jump in. They might have concluded that Harris, Booker, Durbin, etc., miscalculated, and that those figures might find themselves on the wrong side of Sanders should he ultimately become the nominee.
The other possible outcome was what actually happened: Sanders losing to Biden across the board, and Biden’s endorsers looking like they made a difference. Indeed, Biden has already gotten new, powerful backers, like the prominent and deep-pocketed Super PAC Priorities USA, which spent nearly $200 million in the 2016 presidential cycle.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose support helped Biden to his remarkable string of victories, took a victory lap over Sanders supporters in the wake of the night’s results:
Rep. Clyburn on NPR just now: "I think when the night is over, Joe Biden will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination... If the night ends the way it has begun" it's time to "shut this primary down," meaning the DNC should "step in" and cancel future debates.— Miles Parks (@MilesParks) March 11, 2020
This is a bit much, given that Americans still haven’t seen Biden and Sanders face off one-on-one in a televised debate. Given each’s advanced age, and their ability to rely on having limited screen time in previous contests, the next debate might be revealing of their stamina and debating prowess in a one-on-one match with Trump.
But the core of Clyburn’s case is sound. Biden is the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, and voters show no sign of rebelling for Sanders in defiance of party leaders. The party decided, and the voters are ratifying that decision.