Five Takeaways from Super Tuesday 2020

(author’s note: this piece was published before Elizabeth Warren announced she would end her presidential campaign; it has been updated to reflect this development)

Earlier this week, fourteen states (and American Samoa!) voted in the Super Tuesday contests, awarding a third of total available delegates. The evening’s overarching narrative was one of a “Biden boom” — the former Vice President carried ten states, compared to Bernie Sanders’s three, probably four once California is fully tabulated. In short, Biden won Super Tuesday.

But of course, a night featuring scores of presidential and Congressional races is never that simple or one-dimensional. There was a lot to track, so right before the first polls closed, I tweeted out my top Super Tuesday focal points:

The rationale behind these was to be as comprehensive as possible in addressing the various sources of uncertainty created in the 72 hours preceding, while still ascertaining an idea of broad trends and devoting attention to individual contests of interest.

And now that voting’s done, answering those questions seems like the next logical step.

1) Buttigieg and Klobuchar Voters, Especially College-Educated Whites, Broke for Biden

The Democratic field entered Super Tuesday vastly changed. The morning after South Carolina, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg announced he was ending his candidacy; the following day, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar did the same.

Upon their withdrawals, both endorsed Biden, leading to speculation that The Party Was Deciding: essentially, as the more “establishment” candidate, this was an intentional effort to coalesce moderate support around Biden and stymie Sanders. There’s definitely credence to this theory, but there’s no denying the strategy worked.

Take, for example, Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota. Two polls from Swayable and Data for Progress released in the days before the race showed Sanders with a slight lead, and he was forecast to have the highest chance of winning, per FiveThirtyEight.

Yet the actual vote puts Biden in position to finish with a 9% and 10-delegate lead. In the last few days, there was a large swing in his direction, further pushed by Klobuchar’s exit and endorsement — the senior Senator’s sudden withdrawal contributed to the nearly half of Minnesota Democratic primary voters who were late deciders. Biden won them over Sanders, 53% to 19%.

That appeared to be a trend throughout the evening, helping Biden clinch victories in already-favorable states like Tennessee and Oklahoma. Even in Vermont, literal Sanders territory, the former Vice President ended with more late deciders (albeit still losing the overall vote by 28%).

Buttigieg supporters also added to the pool of undecided voters, but they may have dispersed more uniformly, as Morning Consult data suggests his supporters’ second preferences are evenly split among Biden, Sanders, and Warren. That said, it’s likely Biden still got a plurality of Buttigieg backers.

This is partially because college-educated white voters — a group that had up until then preferred Warren and Buttigieg — went overwhelmingly for Biden. In Virginia, he outperformed Sanders among them, 51% to 43%. Considering college-educated voters of all races comprised a majority of the Democratic electorate in 2016, continuing to win over this demographic could increase Biden’s delegate hauls from practically every upcoming contest and provide bumps the Ohio and Wisconsin primaries.

2) Warren Played Spoiler, Bloomberg’s Campaign Spoiled

Another question heading into the night surrounded the fate of the two candidates polling around double digits not named Joe or Bernie: Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg. If they got at least 15% of the vote, they became viable and could start netting delegates.

Following the departures of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, there emerged a sense it had become a two-candidate race between Biden and Sanders; #WarrenEndorseBernie trended on Twitter Monday, urging Warren to release her backers to Sanders. Though she would eventually drop out Thursday morning, her decision to stay in through Super Tuesday distinctly affected the results.

Such was the case in California, by far the night’s largest prize with 415 available delegates. It was predicted to be an easy Sanders victory, and it seems he will indeed finish first.

But wins are never just wins, and it’s about margins and delegate counts. Due in part to the 15% viability threshold, the range of the evening’s possible outcomes was large. According to The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, “if Warren and Bloomberg were each at 14.9%, Sanders would get ~57% of the statewide delegates. [But] if they were each at 15.1%, Sanders would get ~38% of the delegates.” One small bump could have had a big impact.

Wasserman’s hypothetical scenario isn’t exactly what happened. It’ll take more time to count mail-in and other ballots, but only Warren looks likely to hit viability statewide. Additionally surpassing 15% in a handful of congressional districts, she’s poised to deny Biden and Sanders delegates.

Yet Warren might have played the largest spoiler role in her home state. Like Minnesota, Massachusetts was another primary in which Sanders was anticipated to do well, but Biden eked out the win. The Senator’s showing earned her approximately 17 delegates via (possibly more critically) 20% of the vote. Though it’s a topic worthy of its own conversation, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where Sanders won Massachusetts if Warren had not stayed in the race.

By some metrics, Michael Bloomberg had a better night than Warren — channeling Marco Rubio’s 2016 Minnesota caucus upset, the former New York City mayor managed to win a single Super Tuesday contest, the American Samoa caucuses.

And it’s for that reason, also channeling his inner 2016 Marco Rubio, Bloomberg announced he would suspend his campaign (note: Rubio at least waited until he lost his home state of Florida two weeks later before doing the same).

Bloomberg’s decision wasn’t a surprise, given his big Super Tuesday gamble. These were the first states in which he appeared on the ballot, and despite spending millions of advertising dollars in every race, his investment didn’t pay off. In all contests apart from the one he won, Bloomberg failed to finish above third place statewide.

Thus, the billionaire’s most consequential contribution of the night, the choice to endorse Biden, will not have its effects felt until the next states vote on Tuesday, March 10.

3) Biden Finished Above Sanders in Non-Southern States

…And when those states — Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington — do vote, Biden has a chance at winning most of them.

Going into the race, a known weak point for the Biden campaign was its dim prospects in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, so the former Vice President seemed to bank on a more moderate and diverse electorate to carry the South.

Given these expectations, Biden’s showing in non-Southern Super Tuesday states like Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota was crucial to determining if he could actually expand his support; even Virginia and North Carolina looked to be closer than ever. But as mentioned above, he pulled out victories across numerous geographic, demographic, and cultural regions.

Circling back around, this should portend well for Biden in next week’s elections and beyond. He enters March 10th even stronger in Mississippi and Missouri, well-positioned to overtake Sanders in Michigan, and likely to put Idaho and North Dakota in more contention than previously thought.

4) Biden Won Texas

Super Tuesday’s biggest wildcard was the second-largest contest, Texas and its 228 delegates. Polls (also from Swayable and Data for Progess) and forecasts foretold a tight race, and that’s what it turned out to be: Biden will finish about 5 points above Sanders, the slimmest margin of the night excluding Maine.

Here, Biden was again buoyed by day-of support: as The Texas Tribune writes, “Sanders beat Biden in the early vote, 28% to 23%, [while] Biden routed Sanders on election day, 45% to 31%.” Campaign efforts in Houston and Dallas appear to have further helped him win over suburban and African American voters, somewhat counterbalancing Sanders’s 19-point edge among Latino voters.

Switching the focus to Congressional races, it was a big night for Ricky De La Fuente, the son of noted perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente. Both father and child participated in the “jungle primary” for California’s 21st Congressional district, but neither advanced to the runoff. However, Ricky ran in two races in two states on Tuesday, interestingly winning the Democratic nomination for Texas’s 27th Congressional district.

The other candidate in TX-27, businessman Charlie Jackson, filed a complaint to the Secretary of State; Ricky De La Fuente is not a resident of Texas, let alone its 27th Congressional district. Nevertheless, he will go up against GOP incumbent Michael Cloud this November.

5) Alabama’s GOP Senate Nominee Will Either Be the Seat’s Old Occupant or a College Football Coach

Alabama, a state Biden carried by 57%, also hosted an important Congressional primary, for Republican Senate nominee.

The crowded field featured former Auburn Tigers football coach Tommy Tuberville; the seat’s previous occupant and former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions; three-term Representative from Alabama’s 1st Congressional district Bradley Byrne; and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, 2017 GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, who has faced numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.

The candidates finished in the order listed, so Tuberville and Sessions will advance to the March 31st runoff.

That Sessions, a former three-term Senator and Cabinet official, both failed to win a majority and placed second is a reason to keep an eye on the runoff’s results. That he could lose to a not-very-great college football coach is an even more compelling reason — having been born and raised in Alabama, I wholeheartedly wouldn’t be shocked if Tuberville pulled it off based on his football experience alone.

The eventual winner will face Democrat Doug Jones in the general, in what is set to be one of the key battlegrounds for determining control of the Senate. Both Inside Elections and the Cook Political Report rate the race as Lean Republican, meaning either currently has a decent chance of being a United States Senator this time next year.

Conclusion

Super Tuesday was a good night for Joe Biden, though not for the reasons one might have guessed a few weeks ago; the former Vice President emerged from a chaotic, uncertain news cycle with a smorgasbord of new endorsements and — by proxy — voters. Consequently, he continues the campaign with a delegate lead over Bernie Sanders and the clearest path to the Democratic nomination.

There’s no denying many of his gains were made possible by his stronger-than-expected showing in South Carolina. Indeed, if he had not exceeded expectations there, Buttigieg and Klobuchar might have stayed in longer, and we would be in a completely different boat.

But that’s the nature of delegate-rich nights like Super Tuesday: dynamics can change in an instant, leaving little time to hypothesize about what could have been.

After all, the next elections are just a few days away.

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