Joe Biden spent a year limping through the Democratic campaign, shadowed by questions about his ability to win the presidential nomination. In the span of 72 hours, everything changed for the former vice president _ who appeared poised to walk away with the biggest delegate haul on the most important night of the primary calendar.
Biden scored dominating early victories on Super Tuesday in ethnically diverse and electorally key races like Virginia and North Carolina, vaulting into a dead heat with progressive rival Bernie Sanders, who just a week ago seemed on the verge of running away with the nomination.
An upset Biden victory in Minnesota _ a state Sanders won by 24 points in the 2016 primary _ underscored the impact of endorsements from former moderate rivals like Sen. Amy Klobuchar. And a surprise win on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s home turf in Massachusetts delivered what could be a knockout blow to another challenger.
“For those who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden told supporters Tuesday in Los Angeles. “We are very much alive.”
The Democratic race is now narrowing to a contest between two front-runners with diametrically opposed visions for the party and the country. Biden’s remarkable turnaround was catalyzed by his convincing victory in South Carolina on Feb. 29, followed by the rapid endorsements of Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke.
Biden now appears to have successfully consolidated the party’s establishment wing, which was concerned that putting Sanders up as the nominee in November would deliver a second term to President Donald Trump. The former vice president’s victories Tuesday came at the expense of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s near billion-dollar bid to play spoiler.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Now, pressure is rising on Bloomberg to exit the race and clear a path for Biden to defeat Sanders for the right to take on Trump. Exit polls showed that suburban and moderate voters skeptical of the socialist platform championed by Sanders seemed to consolidate around Biden in the final days before Super Tuesday.
The Sanders camp could breathe a sigh of relief when he was quickly declared the winner of the night’s biggest prize _ California _ adding to earlier victories in Vermont, Utah and Colorado. The scope of his victory in California may not be fully known for days, with voters able to mail in ballots as late as Tuesday, but the size of the state should help Sanders offset Biden victories on other parts of the map.
Still, any hope Sanders had of pulling away with the lead ended with Super Tuesday’s early results. Biden put seven states in his column within three hours of the first polls closing, and early results showed him competitive in states like Texas and Maine that were thought to be easy Sanders victories as recently as a week ago.
Speaking in Vermont late Tuesday, Sanders remained defiant, saying he could tell supporters “with absolute confidence we are going to win the Democratic nomination.”
Exit polls from the early-voting states revealed that Biden’s candidacy still had a potential Achilles heel: young voters. Sanders won 57 percent of voters ages 18 to 29, good for a 36-point advantage over Biden.
Still, Biden’s surge revealed both deep-seated concern within the Democratic electorate over the Vermont senator’s ability to win a general election matchup with Trump, and an inability by his campaign to deliver on his promise to bring new voters to his movement.
Among voters who said they’d rather have a candidate who could beat Trump than agreed with them on major issues, exit polls showed Biden with a 47 percent to 22 percent lead over Sanders. And the former vice president similarly dominated voters who identified as somewhat liberal, moderate, or conservative.
Those had been the voters Bloomberg hoped to court, only to see a late break for Biden. Bloomberg spent $48 million in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma _ he lost all four to Biden, whose cash-strapped campaign mustered just $859,693 for ad buys in those states.
In Virginia, where Bloomberg spent millions flipping the state legislature from Republican to Democrat in 2019, exit polls suggested he was seriously underperforming polling expectations and might not garner enough votes to win any delegates.
The loss was particularly stinging because the state seemed like a unique opportunity, with Republican and independent voters allowed to cast ballots in the Democratic primaries and the affluent Northern Virginia suburbs home to defense and technology workers who may have been receptive to his positioning in the race.
Biden dominated in the Washington suburbs, beating Sanders 45 percent to 27 percent according to exit polls.
The story was similar in North Carolina, where Bloomberg opened his first field office of the entire campaign in Charlotte and held a sizable infrastructure advantage over other candidates. But the high-dollar campaign effort may have turned off voters – according to exit polls, half of primary voters in Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee said it was “unfair” for a candidate to spend unlimited amounts of their own money running for office.
The silver lining for Bloomberg _ a victory in American Samoa, where around 350 voters gave him his first delegates of the campaign.
Warren, who entered Tuesday as the only top-tier candidate without a top-three finish, may face similar pressure to end her campaign. The Massachusetts senator hoped that the departures of Buttigieg and Klobuchar from the race could win her support among college-educated white voters, but she now appears poised to have lost each of the first 19 nominating contests.
Biden’s most immediate concern is hoping that his early momentum carries through the evening to California, where 415 delegates are at stake and Sanders is heavily favored to win. The former vice president’s last-minute surge may not have as much effect in California because many voters cast their ballots by mail and made their decision before the South Carolina results.
The impact of Tuesday’s results are heightened by the calendar ahead. Voters in six states _ Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington _ head to the polls next week for another delegate-rich day of voting.
Those contests present another chance for Biden to leverage his advantage in Southern states to build a delegate lead, while Sanders would look to replicate his 2016 success in the Pacific Northwest. Sanders also won Michigan in an upset in 2016, and doing so again could help quell questions about his ability to perform well in states with high black populations and wealthier suburban voters – while bolstering his case that he’s best equipped to challenge Trump in industrial Rust Belt states crucial to Democrats’ hopes to retaking the White House.
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