A week after an impressive Super Tuesday performance gave him the upper hand in the Democratic nomination race, former Vice President Joe Biden solidified his position last night with another round of big wins. Most importantly, Biden handily won Michigan — the big delegate prize on March 10 — by a double-digit margin. It was a state that Sen. Bernie Sanders won in 2016 and probably needed to win again to reset the 2020 race.
Biden’s victories on Tuesday night largely matched our expectations, but that in and of itself confirmed Biden’s massive advantage in the overall contest. Coming in, Biden looked almost certain to win Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri — and he did so emphatically. Biden also appeared to be a solid bet to carry Idaho despite the fact Sanders has been strong in western states — and Biden won there by 6 percentage points. The outcomes in the states that remain uncalled — North Dakota and Washington — look uncertain, but the states also have many votes left to count and, however the results shake out, they won’t change the fundamental fact that Biden came out way ahead on Tuesday.
Biden’s big wins were comprehensive. He won by 16 points in Michigan and carried every county.1 In Missouri, where Sanders lost by less than a point in 2016, Biden won by 25. The preliminary exit poll found that he carried both white and black voters by at least 20 points each in Missouri, including an 18-point advantage among white non-college graduates, who made up a plurality of the electorate. In Mississippi, Biden won by 66 points, fueled by a massive 77-point lead among black voters, who made up around two-thirds of the state’s electorate. And it looks as if Sanders will miss the 15 percent delegate threshold in two Mississippi congressional districts (and maybe statewide too), helping Biden vacuum up more delegates.
Biden’s hot streak will likely burn into next week with four delegate-rich contests in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona. Sanders had less than a 1 in 10 shot of victory in any one of those states before yesterday’s vote, according to our forecast, and the same was true for Georgia, which votes on March 24. As of 2 a.m. Wednesday, Biden had added 64 net delegates to his lead over Sanders with Tuesday’s contests, and now has 806 pledged delegates to 662 for Sanders, according to ABC News. If Biden wins around 60 percent of delegates in contests moving forward — roughly his share yesterday — he will be close to a pledged delegate majority by late May and a shoo-in to have a sizable plurality. The point is, Sanders’s path to the nomination — barring something very unexpected happening — is almost nonexistent.
With Biden on track to reel off more wins in the coming weeks and build toward a delegate majority, he spoke about party unity in his speech on Tuesday night. “I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” said Biden. “We share a common goal, and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together.”
All eyes now turn to Sanders, who has some tough decisions to make going forward. On top of his bleak delegate outlook, post-Super Tuesday national polls showed Biden ahead of Sanders by more than 15 points, suggesting the race just isn’t all that close. Remarkably, then, the 2020 Democratic primary may not be as competitive as the 2016 one, even if Sanders fights on despite having little chance of winning a delegate edge. Sanders didn’t speak on Tuesday night, perhaps a sign that his campaign is figuring out its next steps. (Concerns about the COVID-19 virus led Sanders and Biden to cancel campaign rallies Tuesday night.)
But before we get ahead of ourselves trying to write the conclusion to the 2020 Democratic race, Sanders says he will still be at Sunday’s debate in Phoenix, which won’t have a live audience because of fears about COVID-19. That event may prove to be Sanders’s last gasp, but debates can change the dynamics of a primary race. Yet unless Biden dramatically screws up — never say never — it’s hard to imagine the debate altering the race’s trajectory enough to threaten Biden’s position.
Sanders may have three options for how to proceed at this point. He could drop out — which would thrill establishment leaders in the Democratic Party — but that still seems unlikely in the immediate future. He could continue running to win, which would necessitate going hard after Biden and potentially exacerbating divisions within the party, an approach that could even backfire on Sanders if he’s seen as helping President Trump. Lastly, Sanders could also continue his campaign less to win than demonstrate the power and influence of progressives within the Democratic Party in the hopes of winning more concessions.
Even if Sanders opts to fight on, which would certainly be in keeping with his style, it’s unclear where he can win unless something big changes. While the race may not be over, it increasingly seems that we’re not that far away from calling Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee.