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Two-man race

Super Tuesday reveals a Biden surge, a close race with Sanders, and a battle for the identity of the Democratic Party

Two-man race

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. (left), and former Vice President Joe Biden participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In his classic book about the volatile presidential election of 1968, journalist Theodore White compared Republican Richard Nixon to Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley: “Political clerks, clergymen, undertakers, and mourners had all signed the register. Nixon was as dead as a doornail.”

Except he wasn’t.

In The Making of the President 1968, White charted Nixon’s remarkable comeback after a lost presidential election in 1960 and a drubbing in the California governor’s race in 1962. White said Nixon won the presidency in 1968 “like a political Count of Monte Cristo.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden may be a little more like Lazarus than the Count of Monte Cristo, but Super Tuesday results showed talk of his political funeral just a week ago to be premature.

Biden went from failure in the first three nominating contests of the 2020 Democratic primary season to dominance in the South Carolina primary on Saturday and in a slate of contests on Super Tuesday, when 14 states awarded more than 1,000 delegates.

Biden’s victories propelled him into a two-man race with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whom many considered the Democratic front-runner as late as last week. For the first time in the Democratic race, Sanders was knocked on his heels, as it looked early Wednesday that Biden would surpass him in the delegate count.

It wasn’t surprising that Biden notched more primary wins after his landslide victory in South Carolina three days earlier, but the margin of victory showed the depth of his newfound strength: Biden beat Sanders by 20 percentage points in North Carolina and nearly 30 points in Virginia. The wins continued across the Southeast, with landslide victories in Alabama and Tennessee.

But Biden wasn’t just successful in the South. He won in Texas—which many thought would go to Sanders—and he led in Maine. He also looked to still win delegates in California even though Sanders placed first there and likely would take most of them.

Biden also notched wins in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, the home state of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who vowed to stay in the race despite her third-place finish at home and her abysmal showing overall.

Despite a worse performance in early primary states than former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Warren didn’t take a page from their playbook. Both of those candidates dropped out of the race by Monday and pledged support to Biden. Progressives wondered if Warren would do the same, backing Sanders in a race that has suddenly turned more complicated for him to win.

Meanwhile, after a lackluster Super Tuesday performance, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Wednesday he is ending his run and will support Biden. Bloomberg spent nearly $500 million of his own money on an effort that largely fizzled the first day he faced tests at the polls.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks next to his wife, Jill, during a primary election night rally Tuesday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

While Biden’s campaign engine gained considerable steam on Tuesday, Sanders picked up wins in his home state of Vermont and in Colorado and Utah, in addition to delegate-rich California. Early Wednesday, Biden remained ahead of Sanders in an overall contest that requires 1,991 delegates to secure the nomination ahead of the convention. The tracks to the Democratic nomination stretched into the horizon of a slate of other primaries over the next few months.

Six more states will hold primaries on March 10. The next major test will come on March 17, when a second Super Tuesday of sorts will test the contenders: 10 states with 577 pledged delegates will be up for grabs. Biden likely has an advantage in a handful of those states, including Ohio and Florida, where polls show him in another double-digit lead over Sanders.

Part of Sanders’ struggle in Florida may come from a Latin American immigrant community concerned over the admiration he’s expressed for dictators like the late Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro. Sanders’ embrace of democratic socialism may also be unpopular among immigrants and others in Florida keenly aware of the implosion of the socialist state of Venezuela.

Sanders has tried to distinguish democratic socialism from other forms of socialism, but Biden has picked up on some voters’ unease with Sanders’ views. In stump speeches, Biden has started slipping in phrases about fixing problems “but not with socialism.”

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets supporters during a primary night election rally in Essex Junction, Vt., on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The next big test for Biden, who has received less scrutiny because of his underperformance in the first primaries, will come when he faces a deeper dive into his own proposals—and into controversies sure to rise to the surface. Watch for questions related to President Donald Trump’s impeachment to resurface.

For now, it’s unclear who Trump might prefer as an opponent. But in at least two Super Tuesday states, some Republicans campaigned for Sanders—not because they like the candidate, but because they think he’d be the easiest candidate for Trump to defeat.

Those voters should consider attending a Sanders rally. Whatever they think of Sanders’ policies, he has an undeniably commanding stage presence and an army of devoted followers ready to follow him all the way to the convention, if necessary.

If neither candidate manages to reach the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination ahead of July, a contested convention is a possibility. Democrats’ proportional awarding of delegates appears to make that scenario possible.

At a Sanders rally in Columbia, S.C., supporter Derrick Reeves said if it goes that way, “I’d like to see millions of us showing up at the convention to demand a legitimate candidate.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Wed, 03/04/2020 05:13 pm

    I really don’t think it matters if it’s Biden or Bernie.  Unless Trump does something incredibly stupid—far beyond anything he has done up to now—the election is his.