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5 takeaways from a Super Tuesday that changed the Democratic race

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, seen here at the Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C., won the lion’s share of Super Tuesday’s delegates., turning the primary into a two-man race.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, seen here at the Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C., won the lion’s share of Super Tuesday’s delegates., turning the primary into a two-man race.

Joe Biden won in states where he didn’t campaign. He won in states where he didn’t have offices. He won in states where he was overwhelmingly outspent in advertising. He won in states where rivals had a better organization.

“They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing!” the former vice president roared in an energetic Los Angeles speech that capped the most consequential day yet in the 2020 primary.

The results, from Maine to California, clarified the reality of the race going forward: It is now a two-man contest between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. They were on pace to win the lion’s share of Super Tuesday’s delegates.

Biden won big across the South — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas — and made surprise incursions in the Northeast, beating Sen. Elizabeth Warren on her turf of Massachusetts and even wresting some delegates from Sanders in his home state of Vermont, where four years ago Sanders pulled off a clean sweep.

Biden’s rise coincided with the collapse of Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who spent a half-billion dollars and came away with just one outright victory — in American Samoa.

But if Biden was the big story, Sanders carried the biggest prize and trove of delegates, California, which The Associated Press called just after polls closed. The disparate political coalitions the two septuagenarian politicians have assembled suggest a long and protracted fight ahead.

Here are five takeaways from the biggest day of primary voting and a look at what it means going forward:

Black voters power a resurgent Biden.

Even Biden seemed taken aback by the breadth of victories that would have seemed nearly unimaginable a few days ago. He won in Minnesota, where barely 36 hours earlier the home-state senator had been strongly favored and where Biden was not even seriously contesting.

On Biden’s own website, his “find a field office” page featured only eight offices in the 14 states that voted Tuesday. (An aide said the total was actually nine.)

But if black voters in South Carolina first fueled Biden’s recovery over the weekend, they propelled many of his margins Tuesday. In Alabama, where black voters made up just under half the electorate, he thumped Sanders among them by more than 60 percentage points, handing him a delegate landslide. He won black voters by more than 50 percentage points in Virginia, and by more than 40 points in Texas — a large enough margin to compensate for Sanders’ winning margins among white and Hispanic voters, according to the exit polls.

Buoying Biden’s case against Sanders is that some of his bigger victories came in states where turnout surged — Texas and Virginia — despite the Vermont senator’s assertion that a tide of younger voters and an expanded electorate would power his “revolution.”

In a race where voters have obsessed about electability, Biden’s South Carolina victory — and concerns about a surging Sanders — drove voters and the political establishment to the seeming safe haven of a two-term vice president under Barack Obama.

“Sen. Sanders talks about needing a candidate who can generate the enthusiasm and turnout we need to beat Trump this fall,” said Anita Dunn, a top adviser to the former vice president. “Sen. Sanders, meet Joe Biden.”

Sanders retains strong support. And the race could soon be a slog.

Super Tuesday was a remarkable comeback for Biden and comedown from expectations for Sanders. But that does not mean the race is close to being decided. As of early today, he and Sanders were projected to win a similar number of delegates, with the final results from California days or even weeks away.

Sanders, who has raised far more money than Biden throughout the contest, continues to have a loyal following among several important constituencies: younger voters, liberal voters and Latino voters, in particular. (The Biden coalition appears strongest among older voters, African Americans and moderates.)

It is no accident that Sanders’ support tended to be stronger in the West, which became evident as later results trickled in from states where the electorates are increasingly Hispanic.

One warning sign for Sanders was that the western states where he was most successful — California, Utah and Colorado — all relied heavily on vote-by-mail balloting that would have blunted Biden’s late gains.

For Sanders, the urgent task of halting Biden’s momentum begins now, and perhaps the biggest test will come next week in Michigan. It is a state that Sanders carried four years ago against Hillary Clinton, and a general election battleground that has loomed particularly large for a Democratic Party electorate obsessed with “electability” and beating President Donald Trump.

Plus, the contest could soon see more departures. Bloomberg’s team has said he would reassess after the results came in, while Warren has still not finished above third place after 18 states have voted. Progressives are already pressuring her to leave the race to consolidate support for Sanders.

“Imagine if the progressives consolidated last night like the moderates consolidated, who would have won?” Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a top Sanders surrogate, wrote on Twitter. “That’s what we should be analyzing.”

Momentum, not political organization or money, is what mattered.

Biden’s incredible 72 hours between his victory in South Carolina and the first poll closings on Super Tuesday exerted a kind of gravitational pull rarely seen in politics. Three opponents dropped out (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer) and then three former rivals endorsed him in dramatic fashion Monday in Dallas (Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke).

Political operatives marveled at the thoroughness and speed of his consolidation of support. Kevin Cate, a former adviser to Steyer, noted that the cumulative value of Biden’s final three days of almost pure positive media coverage amounted to a staggering $72 million, according to Critical Mention, a monitoring company.

The question remained: Would there be enough time for all that to sink in and affect the Super Tuesday results? The resounding answer was yes.

For all of Bloomberg’s money — he spent more than $100 for every $1 that Biden invested on television in Super Tuesday states — and the organizational advantages that he and Sanders had, the momentum and free media attention proved far more important.

In Texas, which Biden won, he captured half of those who decided on primary day or “the last few days” — well more than double Sanders, who drew more support among those who decided earlier. It was the same story in Massachusetts. And Maine. And Virginia. Just about everywhere.

The result left the practitioners of politics agonizing over what it meant for their very profession.

“It’s a bizarre feeling to realize that all the things I obsess over in politics — fundraising, technology, advertising, field, digital — did not seem to matter very much at all,” was how Shomik Dutta, a veteran of the Obama campaigns and the co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, a group that invests in new progressive technology, put it on Twitter.

Warren and Bloomberg fade.

She was one among the front-runners. He was recently ascendant and spending his way into serious contention.

But on Super Tuesday both Warren and Bloomberg badly underperformed. As of early today, Warren cracked 20% in only a single state, Massachusetts, where she still finished a disappointing third. And Bloomberg was above 20% only in Colorado, where vote-by-mail balloting had insulated him somewhat from the late electoral stampede toward Biden.

The path forward is uncertain for both candidates.

Warren, bracing for a rough night, did not plan a prime-time speech and has no public events scheduled yet today. (She has more later in the week.) Bloomberg, in his speech, spoke about his data-centric approach to governance but in a way that could apply to the brutal delegate math he now faces, saying he always would “respect data and tell the truth.”

Bright spots were hard to find for the two candidates. Even places that Bloomberg’s orbit had been more hopeful about, such as Tennessee and Oklahoma, quickly faded from the campaign’s grasp as the night wore on.

Warren’s defeat in her home state of Massachusetts was particularly rough, as exit polls showed her finishing in third among women, third in every region of the state and second among liberals.

Her best demographic looked like her: college-educated white women.

The results exposed the party’s generational divide.

One of the biggest fissures in the upcoming battles between Biden and Sanders will be generational: Biden wins older voters by a lot; Sanders wins younger voters by a lot; they are going to fight fiercely for everyone in between.

In Alabama — the state where Sanders performed worst on Tuesday — he still won younger voters (those younger than 30) by a sizable margin, carrying about 45% of them, compared with 32% for Biden, exit polls showed. And in Vermont, Biden nearly matched Sanders among those aged 65 or older, while nearly 7 in 10 voters younger than 40 went with Sanders.

The demographic recipe for a Sanders success was winning the next generation in a landslide.

In California, Sanders carried those younger than 30 with 72%, compared with a paltry 5% for Biden, the exit polls there showed. Sanders actually won an outright majority of Californians under 44 and battled Biden to a draw among voters 45 to 64 years old. It was a similar coalition that led to his sweeping victory in Nevada in late February.

For Biden, winning typically involved strongly consolidating the oldest voters (he won three-quarters of those 65 and older in Virginia, for instance) while limiting Sanders’ gains among those younger than 30.

Going forward, the primary seems likeliest to be eventually determined by whoever can capture those between 40 and 65.

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