Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States, made history on Super Tuesday when he won, against all odds, the majority of states and the largest number of delegates available on a crucial night for his political aspirations and the most important date on the primary voting calendar for the presidential election in November. Biden’s impressive day included not only a resounding victory in Virginia and North Carolina, but also victories in Massachusetts and Minnesota, states that his same campaign had given up for lost weeks ago and where had not even spent money on ads.
No one, not even the candidate himself in his most optimistic incarnation, could have imagined such a result. Suddenly, with his resounding victory in South Carolina a week before Super Tuesday and now with his overwhelming wins in Michigan (a key battleground state in November), Missouri and Mississippi, and likely wins in Florida and Illinois in a week, Biden seems poised to attain a plurality if not a majority of delegates on the road to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
It is now clear that the moderate wing of the party, both politicos and voters, have decided to circle the wagons and support the meandering and at certain moments fragile Biden with amazing discipline and coordination. Almost 3 in 10 Democratic primary voters in Super Tuesday states decided who to vote for in the last few days. In a race where voters have obsessed about electability, Joe Biden’s South Carolina victory –and concerns about a surging senator Sanders – drove voters and the political establishment to the seeming safe-haven of a two-term vice president under Barack Obama. How to explain Biden’s surge, momentum and what has happened –in extraordinary fashion – over the course of the last three weeks?
Certainly African-Americans, the cornerstone of the party coalition for decades, as well as whites with college degrees, in part explain the resurgence. Additionally, many voters decided who to vote for in the last 48 hours, which gave Biden a boost. And 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 on Monday in Dallas, Texas (Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke). Bloomberg and Warren followed suit on the road to the next six primaries on Tuesday March 10. Even if voting in many of the states at stake on Super Tuesday had been going on for weeks, Biden’s traction from the South Carolina primary and the support of Buttigieg, Klobuchar and O'Rourke did have an impact on his outstanding performance on Super Tuesday.
Biden won big across the South and Mid-Atlantic –Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas – and made surprise incursions in the Northeast, beating Senator Elizabeth Warren on her home 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. If black voters in South Carolina first fuelled Biden’s recovery over the weekend, they propelled many of his margins on Super Tuesday and the following week in Missouri and Mississippi. 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’s winning margins among white and Latino voters, according to the exit polls. And his thumping of Sanders in the blue-collar state of Michigan further eroded Sander’s case that he was indeed not only expanding and widening his coalition but was also capable of rebuilding the so-called ‘blue wall’ –erected particularly on the historical support of labour and blue-collar workers –in the three states that Trump prized from the Democrats in 2016 and that will be key to Democratic aspirations come November: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (where Trump is still ahead of potential Democratic nominees in most polls). Buoying Biden’s case against Sanders is that some of his bigger victories came in states where turnout surged –Texas, Virginia and Michigan – despite the Vermont senator’s assertion that a tide of younger voters and an expanded electorate would power his ‘revolution.’
But behind all of this, there’s one salient feature that underpins the turnaround in the Democratic primary in the days before South Carolina. At some point after the Nevada caucuses and Sander’s third primary victory in a row there, Biden’s team opened their eyes and decided to roll up their sleeves and engage in politics and coalition building. Although the details of how and when and with whom this happened are still unclear, it is evident that Biden, who has spent decades in the painstaking and sometimes tedious effort of building bridges and consolidating alliances in Washington, began to engage with his rivals in the Democratic race to add them to his cause at the right time.
The first to coalesce around the Biden campaign was Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an emerging figure in the Democratic party. Biden convinced him to leave the race and join his team. Then the same thing happened with Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator without whose support it would have been impossible for Biden to win that state on Super Tuesday. Beto O’Rourke, who gave him his support (and by extension, some of his popularity in Texas) on the night before that state’s critically important primary, also join those two moderate Democrats in endorsing the former vicepresident. The outcome? Biden not only won Klobuchar’s state but also Texas, the second most important primary and prize of the day. The team of rivals delivered.
What did Bernie Sanders do during those same days? Did he approach Elizabeth Warren to convince her to back him before Super Tuesday? Did he manage to present something similar to Biden’s display of solidarity, to show that the most progressive wing of the party had also closed ranks with him, as the moderates had done with his rival? Nothing of the sort. He dedicated himself to what he has been doing for years: concentrating on his own message and his own persona and railing against the party and the party establishment. With the one and notable exception of the great support Latinos have given him –a successful strategy that has delivered the goods particularly after Clinton beat him with Latinos in 2016 by a margin of 10 percentage points – Sanders could never really expand his coalition of voters.
No man is an island, and Sanders played his cards as a maverick, a disruptor and a victim of a media and partisan conspiracy to his own detriment heading into Super Tuesday and also in its immediate aftermath. The rest, as they say, is history.