Joe Biden was triumphant. “They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing,” he declared in his victory speech Tuesday night. His big wins across the country showed a sudden shift, as the Democrats finally consolidated behind a single moderate candidate, and “Joe-mentum” carried Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and the big one, Texas.
“Those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden crowed. “Just a few days ago the press declared the campaign dead.”
“And then came South Carolina,” Biden added, referring to his first primary victory only three days ago.
Protesters carrying signs that declared “Let Dairy Die” briefly interrupted Biden’s remarks, in an animal-rights demonstration by the group Direct Action Everywhere that seemed designed to alienate rural voters in the swing state of Wisconsin. But that didn’t dampen Biden’s mood.
Bernie Sanders won Vermont, Utah and Colorado as well as the biggest prize, California, where his campaign filed an emergency injunction to keep the polls open as voters continued to wait in long lines hours after the polls were set to close. The vote totals there are still unknown, but Sanders was leading Biden by just under 9% in the delegate-rich state by Wednesday morning.
Elizabeth Warren didn’t even win her home state of Massachusetts.
Mike Bloomberg, after spending half a billion dollars over the last three months, managed to eke out a win in American Samoa. So much for that strategy.
The consolidation behind Biden — with his former rivals Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke all endorsing him over the last few days — was sweeping and swift.
On Tuesday afternoon, as voters were going to the polls in 15 primary contests across the United States, Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the UW’s Elections Research Center, laid out what he thought were the most likely scenarios (with the caveat that the race is still in flux).
“Today, I think the most likely scenario is that no one has a majority going into the convention, but enough bargaining takes place in June and the party figures this out and finds a way to pick a nominee on the first ballot,” he said.
The next most likely possibility, Burden said, is that Biden will get the majority. In that case, “Some Sanders people will throw a fit, but mostly they will fall in line.”
As of Wednesday morning, with fewer than half of the Super Tuesday delegates awarded, Biden had 390 and Sanders had 330.
Despite the obvious rift between progressives and establishment Dems, Burden doesn’t think the Democratic convention in Milwaukee will be as bitterly divisive as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was in 2016.
“There was a tremendous amount of resistance in the Republican Party to Donald Trump — but there was also a lot of resistance to [his rival] Sen. Ted Cruz,” Burden points out.
“And also both have a style that’s very personal and vengeful,” adds Burden.
Recall how Trump paraded into the Cleveland convention hall during Cruz’s floor speech, attempting to steal the show.
“It became a petty game between them,” Burden says.
With Bernie Sanders and Biden, it’s different, he suggests: “There are people resisting Bernie Sanders. But he has very high favorability ratings among Democratic activists. It’s not like he’s strongly disliked.”
On the flip side, by late Tuesday night there were conspiracy theories floating around on Twitter about the Democratic establishment stealing the election from Sanders. Polls showed him leading in Texas right up until the voting started. The turnaround for Biden was head-spinning.
As in 2016, there could be lasting bitterness among Sanders’ supporters after a near-win.
Super Tuesday allocated about one-third of the Democratic Party delegates who will nominate their party’s presidential candidate at the convention. But the race is still on.
As of 3 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, according to the New York Times live forecast, Biden had 35% of all Super Tuesday votes cast, and Sanders had 28%. The next closest was Bloomberg at 14%, then Warren at 13%. California, where Sanders is ahead, will change those totals. The Times forecasts that the cumulative total after Super Tuesday will be 670 for Biden and 589 for Sanders.
Then begins the long slog into the summer.
At the convention, if no candidate wins a clear majority in the first round of voting by all 4,051 pledged delegates, the 714 federal officials and governors who are unpledged superdelegates (about 15% of the total number of delegates) get to vote in a second round. Most will probably throw their weight behind Biden.
Still, even among this group, says Burden, “It’s not hatred of Sanders that’s motivating them. It’s concerns about electability, or that his policies aren’t paid for. It’s not like they think he’s going to ruin the party, as many Republicans felt about Trump and Cruz.”
“It may be there are delegates who walk out, or protests. But I don’t think there would be a riot or revolt,” Burden says.
Even if neither Biden nor Sanders has more than 50% of the delegates—the magic number 1,991—at the end of the primary process, “the Democrats might work it out,” says Burden. “The convention could be the end point of a long negotiation that takes a few weeks.”
Speaking to supporters in Detroit on Tuesday night, Elizabeth Warren vowed not to drop out, despite her embarrassing third-place finish in Massachusetts. “I am still in this fight,” she declared.
“Big structural change is hard, but it is the right thing to do,” she added, in a speech that seemed to suggest that she would not follow the lead of other candidates who endorsed Biden.
In fact, Warren sounded a bit like Sanders, who declared on Tuesday, “You cannot beat Trump with the same old, same old kind of politics. What we need is a new politics that brings working-class people into our political movement, which brings young people into our political movement and which in November will create the highest voter turnout in American political history.”
Turnout was high across the country. Virginia saw nearly double the turnout of 2016. But according to exit polls, younger voters did not turn out in large numbers across the South, and Sanders got a smaller share of them than he did in 2016.
If Warren drops out, it’s not clear where her supporters will go.
“Surveys show Elizabeth Warren’s supporters would likely split,” Burden says. “Some of her supporters like her because she’s progressive, and might support Sanders. But others like her because she’s competent or electable, which is Biden’s pitch.”
The outside chance that Warren could be a unity candidate elected on a second ballot at a convention split between Sander and Biden now seems vanishingly small.
For now, it’s all about Joe-mentum.
This article was published simultaneously by the Examiner and the Progressive magazine.