In the short space of less than a week, the Democratic primary election seems to have changed dramatically. In actual fact, it has changed very little from the state it was in a year ago. Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a commanding lead, followed by his main rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). Biden’s return to the top of the ladder from the electoral graveyard after Super Tuesday is one of the most extraordinary revivals in American politics over the last two decades, matched only by former President Bill Clinton’s performance during the 1992 primary, which earned him the moniker “Comeback Kid.”
The events of the past several weeks have been something of a whirlwind. The results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary pointed strongly towards Sanders as the new frontrunner. Conventional wisdom dictated that it was Sanders’ nomination to lose, an impression bolstered by his performance in Nevada, where he won 46.8 percent of the vote.
South Carolina changed everything. Biden, having long held strong support among African-Americans, who make up over a quarter of the state’s population, and carrying the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), swept the state, winning a plurality of votes in every precinct and overtaking Sanders’ cumulative popular vote lead.
What happened next is history. A rapid winnowing of the moderate wing ensued as former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) dropped out, and, accompanied by former representative Beto O’Rourke, endorsed Biden at a bombastic rally in Dallas. Biden’s dramatic Super Tuesday overperformance, where he swept not only Southern states where he was expected to win but also states like Massachusetts in the Northeast and Minnesota in the Midwest secured his status as the presumptive nominee – “Comeback Kid 2.0.”
Where does the primary go from here? For one thing, it’s now a clear two-horse race. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) both exited the race shortly after poor Super Tuesday showings, with the former endorsing Biden. Apart from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who remains in the race with only two pledged delegates apparently out of sheer stubbornness, there is no real competition against Biden and Sanders in the moderate and progressive wings respectively. The DNC’s new debate criteria, which will pit Biden against Sanders directly in a debate on March 15, cements this fact.
For another, Biden’s lead may well be insurmountable. His Super Tuesday victory highlights several heretofore unnoticed features of his candidacy. First, physical presence and ‘ground game’ is not as important as it previously seemed. Biden had no staff in Minnesota, just one office in Virginia, and half of Sanders’ monetary resources – but he was able to win those states and others regardless. With the surge in fundraising he experienced post-Super Tuesday, and the help of Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg’s campaign apparatuses, Biden will not struggle for funds and organisation.
Many of the states that remain in contention favour Biden significantly. In Florida, which has 219 delegates up for grabs, Sanders recent refusal to retract his defence of Fidel Castro’s Cuba is clearly reflected in recent polling, which sees Biden up by 48 points. In Michigan (125 delegates), which Sanders won in 2016, Biden has secured the endorsement of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and led by seven points in a post-South Carolina poll of the state. He can also expect to continue winning among Southern voters in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana which together offer hundreds of delegates.
Sanders’ primary path to the nomination was securing the support of young people, who are an historically unreliable voting group, but among whom he is very popular. Super Tuesday provided some indication that this strategy is largely ineffective. In Sanders’ own words: “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in? The answer is no.” Just 15 percent of Texan primary voters were under-30, compared to the 45-64 age range which made up 38% of the Texas electorate and favoured Biden heavily.
Biden’s path to the nomination is by no means guaranteed, but there is little doubt that he is back on top, and is unlikely to fall anytime soon. Come the convention in July, the Democratic Party must unite around him if they are to have a hope of defeating Donald Trump in November. One can only hope that Sanders and his zealous supporters will accept defeat if it comes to it, and join Biden in his march to the White House.