On 22 Short Takes About Super Tuesday
With obvious apologies to the Simpsons….Here’s my 22 short takes on the 14 Super Tuesday primaries that combined yesterday to produce a common narrative –Bernie Sanders NOT running away with the nomination, Joe Biden coming back from the dead, and the really, really rich guy proving to be really, really bad at politics. In the months ahead, it will be fascinating to see if the real Joe Biden can live up to the idea of Joe Biden that people voted for yesterday – namely, the wise old guy who can save the country from the political extremism of the right and the left. As yet, the real Joe Biden appears to have only a shaky grasp of just what that script is going to demand of him.
While we’re waiting to see how the Biden scenario plays out, some other thoughts on yesterday :
1.Meet the Godfather. Who knew that the most important patron in American politics would turn out to be a 79 year old black congressman from South Carolina? Because way back at the start of last week, it was Rep. Jim Clyburn’s ringing endorsement of Biden that propelled the former vice-President to his famous victory in South Carolina, which quickly caused moderate contenders Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out and endorse Biden…and the rest is history.
2. Evidently then endorsements still do matter in US politics. One fear that the Biden camp had going into Super Tuesday was that – at best – he would succeed only regionally in the southern states and among black voters still grateful for his role within the Obama administration. In her home state of Minnesota, Klobuchar’s endorsement significantly helped Biden not only to win the state but to demonstrate forcefully that he could win elsewhere too, among white voters. Biden’s ‘thank you’ phone call last night to Klobuchar was well-earned.
3. To underline the point : the Minnesota electorate is only 5% black, yet Biden won there, and in equally white Massachusetts, and in Maine. Beforehand – in 2016 and in the early contests in 2020 - Sanders had done extremely well in states with large white majorities, and was expected to do very well ( and even win) in Minnesota ( which is 87% white.) He ended up nearly ten points behind Biden.
4. In a rare outcome for US politics, the money didn’t call the shots. Biden’s campaign bought no TV ads in Massachusetts, he never visited Oklahoma at any point during his campaign and had no field staff there at all. Yet he won both, beating Elizabeth Warren in the state she represents in the Senate (Massachusetts) and in the state (Oklahoma) in which she was born. To boot in Massachusetts, Biden also beat Sanders, the senator from neighbouring Vermont. Basically, the free media coverage that Biden got after South Carolina ( thanks again, Jim Clyburn) outweighed everything else.
5. Goodbye and good riddance, Michael Bloomberg. Hard to avoid the schadenfreude here. Bloomberg says that he spent $687 million of his own money in two months on ads and on-the-ground organising - but he never recovered from the first sighting of him in person, being eviscerated by Warren during the opening minutes of the Las Vegas debate.
6. But hey, Bloomberg won American Samoa! To do so, Bloomberg put seven full time staff on the ground in American Samoa, and won six delegates. Plus, it may be significant that the only primary that Bloomberg won was the only territory he didn’t visit in person.
7. That said, Bloomberg’s subsequent decision to (a) drop out (b) turn his significant field staff over to Biden and (c) pour his millions into Biden’s coffers will all be useful in future to Biden, who sorely lacks money, and any real organisation on the ground.
8. The one consolation for Sanders on a poor night was his win in California, although it will take days of doing the complex maths ( see below) to work out the final delegate spread. Arguably though, Sanders’ comfortable victory margin in California ( currently, it is 8.7%) would have been smaller but for the state’s high incidence of early voting, which meant it largely missed out on the Biden surge that came after the South Carolina result last Saturday.
9. Sanders underperformed overall – no one at all expected him to lose to Biden in Texas - and notably so when compared to his 2016 results. In his home state of Vermont, he won 86 % of the vote in 2016, and pushed Hillary Clinton down below the 15% threshold required to win any delegates at all. Yesterday Sanders still won in Vermont, but with only 51% of the vote – and Biden got a healthy 22%, and a share of the delegates.
10.BTW, Biden also showed he has clout among black voters beyond the south. In Texas, exit polls indicated a lead of 60 to 17 percent over Sanders among black voters.
11.In a stinging criticism at the ongoing consolidation occurring among moderate Democrats, Sanders claimed overnight that his campaign was not only up against the corporate Establishment but was also up against the political Establishment. Well, there’s another way of putting that. Reasonable fears exist that Sanders would not only lose against Trump, but would cause ’ down ticket” Democratic candidates to be defeated in November. That’s why in Texas, as NYT’s Katie Glueck pointed out, Biden sought and won the endorsement of several Democratic House members running in competitive seats : his pitch being that he can help down-ballot Democrats. That’s not a bad thing.
11.Unity, sure… everyone loves it and apple pie, too. But Super Tuesday was a mirror for division, too. As Nate Silver of the 538 site says, Super Tuesday’s results also told us that black voters are more with Biden, Hispanic voters are more with Sanders; old voters are more with Biden, young voters are more with Sanders; moderate voters are more with Biden; very liberal voters are more with Sanders. Also, men disproportionately support Sanders - but there isn’t (yet) a consistent and measurable gender gap between the Sanders base and the people coming out for Biden. The healing and the unifying stuff may take some time.
12.Of course, its not that female voters will necessarily vote for a woman (Sarah Palin?) or for Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, regardless of all else. In the wake of his South Carolina victory, the Biden campaign were at pains to note that white suburban women came out big for Biden in South Carolina, in addition to his dominance with African-Americans. Recommended reading : there was a good article on Vox last year, about some myths to do with the “female voter.”
13.Where does Elizabeth Warren’s campaign go now? Last night, she was heading to the next battles in Michigan and Idaho, but her campaign seems to be at a crossroads. Previously, you could argue that her persistence helps Sanders in that she can still reach voters (mainly, women and the college educated) that he struggles to attract, and that their progressive forces would conceivably combine later, at a contested convention. After a bad Super Tuesday though, Warren has only 61 delegates. On paper that still makes the difference between Biden’s 566 and Sanders’ 501 current delegates, but the delegate gap between Biden and the combined progressive wing seems very likely to expand. Moreover, there is no love lost between Sanders and Warren. Is she really in this fight from now on, mainly to help him win? Besides the personal animus, her entire pitch – and her very detailed set of policies - have been about how to reform capitalism, not to burn it down. Her future would seem to be within a Biden administration.
14.“Winning” a state can be illusory. If the victory margin is small, the difference in the delegate count is negligible. For example : Hillary Clinton “won” Massachusetts in 2016, but Sanders got only one less delegate than she did. This time Biden won in Massachusetts, but Sanders got only six fewer delegates. That’s a pattern. Sanders lost in many of the states that he lost last time, but this time by somewhat bigger margins. In Texas that erosion mattered a lot. Even if the delegate counts are only marginally different on paper, it is hard to see how the Sanders campaign can relaunch the claim that its their man who is out front, riding the waves of support and generating turnout. Yesterday, it was Biden who could claim to be generating the increase in turnout.
15.If Sanders is going to bounce back, when and where it will be ? His best chance has to be Michigan, next Tuesday. Also on Tuesday however, Biden is heading for Missouri and Mississippi where he can expect to do very well. Ironic, really…just like Bloomberg, the Sanders road map was always premised on doing extremely well on Super Tuesday. To repeat : its hard now to see where and how he can reclaim the running back from Biden. Unless Biden self-implodes.
16.If Biden does go on to win the nomination….which short of one of those classic Biden foot in mouth moments (always possible) now seems very likely, what peace offering can Biden possibly make to Sanders to prevent the Bernie supporters from staying home in November out of pique, and sabotaging the Dems campaign against Trump? Hard to conceive that could possibly be.
17.Choice moment from yesterday : here’s a link to a clip of Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying that the race between about the Democratic contenders doesn’t matter – namely because, that all of them are socialists. Reds used to be hiding under your bed. Thanks to political correctness, they’re now woke, and in your bed.
18. Even liberals have – as a black joke - made a similar point about the Republicans’ capacity for spin and bullshit. As Matthew Yglesias wryly pointed out on Monday :
My strong suspicion is that if Biden wins, many conservatives with misgivings about Trump currently telling themselves they’d vote for him will “learn” that he backs legal abortion, raising taxes, taking your guns, and other normal Dem stuff and decide that he’s too left-wing.
19. And now…some homework. Super Tuesday was a rare case of the US political system using proportional representation. None of the 14 Super Tuesday states used a winner-take-all system to allocate the delegates pledged to ultimately anoint the candidate at the Democratic Convention in July – which is one reason why there’s still wiggle room about the full significance of yesterday’s results. To repeat : the gap between Biden (566) and Sanders( 501) isn’t that big on paper. There’s a reason for that. Delegates are awarded to anyone who scores (a) at least 15% of the votes cast state-wide or (b) within a particular individual congressional district.
20. Huh? That “congressional district” thing is a bit weird. In Virginia, Warren got only 10.7% of the vote statewide, but she qualified for delegates by crossing the 15% threshold in one congressional district. In California, the delegate breakdown of the Golden State’s 415 pledged delegates is that a whopping two-thirds of them – 271 – are chosen at the congressional district level. A candidate can capture anywhere from four to seven delegates depending on the size of a congressional district. Only 144 of the pledged delegates are distributed based on a candidate’s performance across the entire state. Sorry, but I have no idea how those individuals who comprise the delegate slate then get allocated to Team Biden or to Team Bernie – even though you’d think that this allocation would have consequences for how well (or badly) the fight for the nomination gets waged on the floor at a contested convention. That’s another good reason why it could be a good thing is this contest doesn’t go all the way down to the wire in July.
21. Both Biden and Sanders are old, and in Sanders case, have known serious health conditions. Who-ever wins, this makes the choice of their VP running mates even more critical than usual, give the heightened possibility that the VP may inherit the presidency ahead of schedule. In 2020, both these very white men probably need to choose a woman as running mate : and the 46 year old black politician Stacey Abrams from Georgia looks to be a prime contender. So would senator Tammy Baldwin from the swing state of Wisconsin. (A Biden/Warren ticket is being talked about, but seems unlikely for a whole variety of obvious reasons.) Overall…if Trump loses in November, the first female President may arrive sooner than expected.
22. Ultimately, Biden’s success – and his ability to succeed despite his lack of huge money inputs and massive canvassing efforts in the field – may of course, primarily reflect the negative perceptions of the other contenders. His rivals were widely reported to be (a) a billionaire trying to buy the election,(b) a burn the system to the ground radical crank, and (c) a too smart for comfort, finger wagging professor who is also (egad) a woman. (No wonder Warren has appealed mainly to college educated adults. Smart people do love star lecturers and debaters. Other people not so much.) )
Meaning : ultimately, Biden may well have won Super Tuesday more for what he isn’t than for what he is. Nice old guy, no significant threat to anyone. The Democrats will have quite a long time to live with the consequences of that perception.