by Alex Knepper
Apparently the center-left has learned something from the Trump 2016 trainwreck after all. After the Nevada caucuses, it looked as though the Democrats were headed down the same path as the Republicans in 2016, whereby a hopelessly divided center-left was unable to coalesce around a single candidate in time to stop a zealous ‘outsider’ from marching to the nomination with plurality win after plurality win. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar looked set to reprise the roles of Marco Rubio and John Kasich, respectively; they had as much as justification to stay in the race through Super Tuesday as either of them did. Buttigieg has won as many contests as Biden; Klobuchar won a solid fifth in New Hampshire and could be forgiven for wanting to see whether she had an easier time on Super Tuesday, when home state Minnesota votes.
But they didn’t reprise those roles. The Democratic Party has shown remarkable discipline, from Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden through today. We have to imagine pressure was raining down on Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Buttigieg is not even 40 years old yet; he wants a future in the party and seems to have decided to ‘take one for the team’ now so as to purchase credibility as a team player down the line. Klobuchar had no rationale to remain in the race if Buttigieg, who beat her in every contest so far, also dropped out. It’s not entirely clear why Elizabeth Warren is still in the race, but she raised about a million dollars a day in February solely from small donors, and therefore is able to keep going — plus, she remains stubbornly persistent in the low double-digits in the national polls, so it could just be that she’s hoping to collect enough delegates to angle for the VP slot on a ticket led by either Biden or Sanders.
Southern black voters bailed out Joe Biden in South Carolina just like they bailed out Hillary Clinton, another top Obama associate, last time — albeit by a margin that was 20 points narrower. Tom Steyer getting out of the race would ordinarily point toward supermajority wins for Biden in states like Alabama and Mississippi, except for the fact that we are still not clear on the role Mike Bloomberg will play. Since he invested half a billion dollars in the Super Tuesday states, he couldn’t be pressured into dropping out prior to tonight, and for the sake of Joe Biden, at that; he got into the race in the first place because he lacked confidence in Biden in particular.
Of course, Bloomberg gave a big assist to the center-left by spectacularly imploding on the debate stage a couple of days before Nevada voted. Although the torrent of coverage of the Warren-Bloomberg spat did not seem to help Warren, it sure stopped Bloomberg in his tracks, much like the Christie-Rubio ‘Obama knows exactly what he’s doing’ episode in the 2016 New Hampshire Republican debate. Maybe Bloomberg was never going to reach 20% in national polls; maybe 15% was always his ceiling. But at the very least, he did nothing to help himself, and proved that he was no more reliable a candidate than Joe Biden, and full of just as much baggage. If Bloomberg’s rationale for being in the race was that Joe Biden couldn’t go the distance, it blew up in his face when he arrived at that Nevada debate totally unprepared and then served up a mediocre-at-best reprise in the South Carolina slugfest. One has to imagine that Bloomberg was really not expecting to have to debate so soon; he was cornered by even the most obvious and predictable attacks. He had an opening to be the one to rescue the center-left from Bernie Sanders, and he blew it.
Bloomberg’s presence in the race has had the interesting effect of taking eyes off of Joe Biden over the last couple of months, however. Biden’s been more-or-less out of the news cycle since the week he was challenging Iowa voters to push-up contests and telling them to go vote for other people, and calling them — I still can’t believe these words actually escaped the lips of a credible presidential candidate — ‘lying dog-faced pony soldiers.’ Biden has not been seriously scrutinized yet and has not spent days on end under the harsh pressures of the 24/7 media spotlight. People have been distracted from Biden for just long enough that they’ve managed to forget that the idea of Joe Biden and the actually-existing Joe Biden are not the same. The Joe Biden we see in public events today is not the same Joe Biden we saw in 2012 taking on Paul Ryan.
People who opposed Bernie Sanders freaked out after his Nevada blowout. Then people who support him freaked out after South Carolina. People need to stop overreacting to individual events. This is the reality of the race: except for a surprise resurgence by either Bloomberg or Warren, we now are looking at an extended, dragged-out race that remains competitive until the end — much like the 2016 primary, but even more closely fought. Hillary Clinton won more resoundingly against Bernie Sanders than is usually remembered. But Biden is not likely to replicate Hillary’s numbers among Latino voters or even black voters. Which leads us to our first question:
1. How Will Latinos Vote?
If only black people voted, Joe Biden would be the nominee. If only white people voted, Bernie Sanders would be the nominee. In 2016, Latinos settled the dispute, going for Hillary Clinton by a three-to-two margin and providing her with a comfortable foundation against Sanders. This time around, Bernie dominated among Latinos in the Nevada caucuses — albeit within the same 47% vote total that he won against Clinton in 2016. Biden underperformed significantly. In South Carolina, he won the small slice of the electorate that is Latino, but voters of Cuban descent vote very differently than voters of, say, Mexican descent, or Guatemalan descent. California and Texas will give us a clearer picture of what the Biden-Sanders divide looks like. Will Biden’s numbers in California look more like they did in South Carolina, or more like they did in Nevada?
2. Do States Care What Other States Think Anymore?
Given that South Carolina did not give a damn what Iowa or New Hampshire thought, it might be the case that voters on Super Tuesday will also not give a damn what South Carolina thought. South Carolina independently decided that it was sick of reacting to what Iowa and New Hampshire did, and made its own choices, lifting Biden to his first win and Tom Steyer to his only top-three finish. Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren, all of whom won between 18% and 25% in either Iowa or New Hampshire, were paid dust by South Carolina voters.
So it’s an open question as to whether California or Minnesota or Virginia voters care what voters in South Carolina think. One good indication that they do not care is if Elizabeth Warren — who seems at this point to dislike Sanders as a politician at least as much as she dislikes Biden — has her best night yet — or if Bloomberg at least meets expectations.
3. What Is the Bloomberg Factor?
Mike Bloomberg meeting expectations would mean that he retains the 15-20% he’s been snagging in most polls of Super Tuesday states. His get-out-the-vote operation is pretty sophisticated, though it’s an open question how much that kind of apparatus really matters. Every voter in America now knows he’s running for president, and he’s always made clear to his supporters that he was not going to start to compete until Super Tuesday. He pledged this week to stay in the race until the end; presumably he will keep this promise if he performs at least to expectations tonight.
If Bloomberg consistently wins enough of the vote that, dividing his votes 3-to-1 Biden-to-Sanders, he is perceived as enabling Bernie Sanders to consistently win states with pluralities (e.g., Sanders 40 Biden 30 Bloomberg 20 Warren 10; divide Bloomberg’s votes 3-to-1 and Biden and Sanders are tied at 45), it’s likely that he will feel the sting of conscience, or at least the sting of fear. He does not want to be responsible for Sanders, whom he loathes as much as the Democratic ‘establishment’ in general loathes him, winning the nomination.
4. Can Bernie Still Win Big In Ex-Caucus States?
Mercifully, most states that previously conducted undemocratic experiments called caucuses — like Minnesota and Colorado — have transitioned to a normal primary system. But caucuses have tended to greatly assist candidates playing the ‘insurgent’ role; Sanders and also Barack Obama crushed Hillary Clinton in the caucuses. Obama, in fact, would not have won the nomination in 2008 if it were not for caucuses; Bernie would have lost to Clinton in the popular vote by over 15% instead of 12% if there had only been primaries in 2016. Granted, most of the caucuses were held in states that are already demographically friendly to Sanders. But can he still win a lopsided delegate haul when he doesn’t have the benefit of the caucus system?
Trial heat one-on-one match-ups of Biden vs. Sanders have shown that it would be a closely divided contest. Biden is Sanders’s strongest opponent, since he cuts most easily into Sanders’s base of white men without a college degree. Considering that the state of the race is not static but can swing unexpectedly within a week’s time, such as what we just saw over the last week, I’d still rather be in Sanders’s shoes than Biden’s. But what looked like a 2:1 shot for Bernie has narrowed to a 50:50 chance. It appears for now, at least, that we are in for another protracted, dragged-out fight to the finish. Gird your loins…