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What Are The Biggest Super Tuesday Wild Cards?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Today is Super Tuesday! The Super Bowl of primary elections — more than one-third of all pledged delegates will have been awarded after everything is said and done.

But it appears we might be in for a bit more chaos and uncertainty than we’d budgeted for after Joe Biden’s big win in South Carolina. Both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have dropped out of the race, and first Klobuchar and then Buttigieg made it known they will endorse Biden.

Where does this leave us going into things?

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Before we begin, I feel like we should pause and think of the sad early voters who already cast their ballots for Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Early voting isn’t for the faint of heart.

ameliatd: You have to be ready for some 💔.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Based on our state polling averages, we’re talking about roughly 10 to 15 percent of voters in most of these Super Tuesday states who previously were with Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

That’s a sizable chunk of the electorate that now moves to Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in some order. My guess would be for ideological reasons that Biden stands to gain the most, especially coming off his South Carolina win, but it’s also true that Warren’s support overlaps a lot with Klobuchar and Buttigieg’s base of well-educated and affluent voters.

ameliatd: In terms of the Super Tuesday delegate math, though, fewer candidates is bad for Sanders — especially in California, which is where I’ve been focusing for the last week. Sanders is leading in California polls and is almost certainly going to get more than 15 percent of the vote statewide and in all 53 congressional districts. When the field was more crowded, it looked like he might be cruising toward a huge delegate haul, as candidates like Klobuchar and Buttigieg would probably split the rest of the votes and prevent others from cracking 15 percent. Without them in the race, Warren, Biden and Bloomberg all stand to take more delegates.

Now, it’s true that Biden/Warren/Bloomberg all have a better shot of getting delegates in California than in other states where they’re flirting with the 15 percent threshold (Warren and Bloomberg in particular), but I have to guess that many would-be Buttigieg/Klobuchar voters will lean toward Biden as a strategic not-Sanders choice. Maybe even some Warren/Bloomberg folks will go that way!

Meanwhile, about 22 percent of the California Democrats have returned their mail-in ballots, but that’s actually low compared to previous primaries. It seems like people were waiting to make their decision, and they might be swayed by the sense that this has become a two-person race. This is purely anecdotal, but I talked to several California voters over the weekend who were going to vote for Warren but switched to Biden after his win in South Carolina. Of course, I don’t know how widespread that sentiment is, but it was pretty striking to hear it from multiple voters at a fairly sparsely populated early voting location.

sarahf: It’s really unclear to me who benefits at this point.

Obviously, there’s a strong argument to be made for Biden. These are candidates dropping out from his “moderate lane,” and in theory, a good chunk of Klobuchar’s support should go to him. But as Nate wrote last night after Buttigieg dropped out, their support will also kinda sorta benefit everyone?

Like Sanders will likely still pick up some of this support from the sheer fact that he is currently the most popular Democrat in the field.

ameliatd: But in the places where Sanders is already comfortably clearing 15 percent, having a few new supporters doesn’t benefit him as much.

It’s all about the delegates!

sarahf: That’s a good point, Amelia. There also seems to be some pretty strong evidence that “the party is deciding,” even if it’s at the last possible minute. (In case you missed it, former Sen. Harry Reid also endorsed Biden on Monday.)

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I’ve been tracking the rate at which Democratic officeholders have endorsed this year, and it’s been at a slightly slower rate than Republicans in 2016. So the party really wasn’t deciding.

But we’ve now seen a number of congressional endorsements for Biden pop up here in the scramble before Super Tuesday, so that does suggest there’s a rally-around-Biden effect happening as the anti-Sanders standard bearer.

micah: If they all flock to Biden en masse, that would also be one of the more effective ways to influence the primary — rather than endorsing him in drips. At least, that would be my guess.

ameliatd: The fact that it’s happening all at once does make the endorsements feel much more overwhelming and decisive, which could have a bigger impact on voters than a slow dribble of endorsements they may not even hear about.

sarahf: These last-minute endorsements definitely have a lot of upswing for Biden, but couldn’t it also maybe motivate some of Sanders’s base who aren’t your typical primary voters?

ameliatd: I am really, really curious to see if Sanders’s big investment in ground game/voter turnout pays off. He’s got an extremely impressive operation in California.

But the less-frequent voters he’s targeting actually have to show up. On the other hand, another thing I am wondering about: How much will Biden’s lack of a real campaign infrastructure/ground game hurt him on Super Tuesday? He has basically no presence in California and a lot of other states, too.

geoffrey.skelley: Eh, there’s not much evidence that Sanders is bringing out atypical primary voters. So far Sanders has succeeded by broadening his appeal — especially among nonwhite voters — not by expanding his base.

So I guess we’ll see if that changes.

But it is possible, as Amelia says, that Biden won’t be in as good a position to capitalize on his big moment coming out of South Carolina because of resource shortages. He doesn’t have much of an on-the-ground footprint.

ameliatd: I’d argue, though, Geoffrey, that we haven’t really seen a test of Sanders’s ground game in a big, diverse state where he’s invested a lot of resources (like California!). It could still be a flop — but I think it’s too early to write off his turnout efforts.

sarahf: Yeah, Geoffrey, you’re not wrong that so far Sanders’s turnout bet hasn’t really yielded any results, but I could see all of this firing up his base.

ameliatd: Right, especially if they feel like the Democratic establishment is closing ranks to keep Sanders out.

micah: They already feel that way!

ameliatd: I think this could seem like all of their fears realized though!

geoffrey.skelley: Well, it would certainly confirm what they already believe.

micah: Though, there’s nothing really shady about what the party is doing. It’s how our democracy works. And I think we’re very close to being able to say that “the party” has decided — whether voters care is another story.

geoffrey.skelley: Any rallying against Sanders is shady, Micah. Ipso facto. At least according to my Twitter timeline.

sarahf: It’s not shady, but I think it can be spun effectively if you’re Sanders.

ameliatd: To be fair, I’m not sure how many Sanders supporters are on the sidelines in California. Sanders fans here are so excited about his impending win. But this might be the moment that they try to convince, say, their Warren-supporting friends that the progressive candidates are under attack, and it’s time to throw their weight behind Sanders because he could actually win.

sarahf: That’s a good point, Amelia — I wonder if instead of Warren benefitting much from Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropping out, it instead hurts her because of this idea that there is now only really two choices

And so if you’re progressive, you better vote Sanders.

micah: That seems very plausible to me.

Lots of “Bernie vs. Biden” headlines.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, excellent point. It does seem as if Warren could benefit quite a bit from Buttigieg and Klobuchar departing in at least some of these Super Tuesday states. Their vote shares in our model are pretty highly correlated from district to district. But they also correlate quite a bit with Sanders’s in a place like Texas.

sarahf: How confident should we feel in the polling picture?

micah: Not at all confident!

geoffrey.skelley: We’ve barely got any post-South Carolina polls, and no survey data post-Buttigieg dropout or post-Klobuchar dropout. So the race is in flux. The one national survey we have that is entirely post-South Carolina is from Morning Consult, and it found Biden surging back to within 3 points of Sanders, a marked shift from his 13-point deficit before South Carolina.

sarahf: Well, so I think we can be somewhat confident in the BIG toplines. This is from Nathaniel Rakich’s election update on Sunday, which factored in the South Carolina results and some new polls.

Biden now leads in most southern Super Tuesday states

The percent chance each Democratic presidential candidate has of winning each contest on Super Tuesday, according to the FiveThirtyEight primary forecast as of 11:10 a.m. Eastern on March 1

Contest Biden Bloomberg Buttigieg Klobuchar Sanders Warren
Calif. 7% 0% 0% 0% 91% 1%
Texas 48 3 0 0 49 0
N.C. 77 5 0 0 18 0
Va. 48 10 0 0 41 0
Mass. 4 2 2 0 63 30
Minn. 2 0 0 56 40 2
Colo. 6 2 1 0 85 6
Tenn. 61 10 1 0 26 2
Ala. 79 9 0 0 11 0
Okla. 45 27 1 0 25 1
Ark. 39 24 6 0 30 1
Utah 0 4 3 0 87 6
Maine 11 9 6 0 67 6
Vt. 0 0 0 0 99 0
A.S. 32 20 4 2 35 8

And as you can see, it’s really only a two-person race now.

Now some of those margins may be in debate. Is Texas really that close? Does Sanders really have that wide of a margin in California? 🤷‍♀️

But I don’t think we’re flying entirely blind, although obviously, quite impaired.

micah: So, there are just way too many wild cards to be at all sure the current polling picture is accurate …

  1. As we’ve discussed, Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out — where do their voters go?
  2. How do voters react to Biden’s South Carolina win?
  3. Michael Bloomberg?

We can make educated guesses about where Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s supporters will go, and maybe that Morning Consult poll is accurate, but there’s just so much uncertainty. In addition, as Geoffrey said, we have only a little bit of data on how where Bloomberg stands in the wake of his first two debates and Biden’s South Carolina win.

ameliatd: I’ll be really curious to see what happens in Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I was wondering about the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

sarahf: There are a lot of wild cards — but I’m still not sure how much the topline has changed. Neither Buttigieg or Klobuchar had a real path to the nomination, and I’m not sure them dropping out now does enough to put Biden over the edge.

micah: They didn’t have a path to the nomination but they had a meaningful share of the vote!

sarahf: I’ll give you some on Buttigieg, Micah, but outside of Minnesota, I strongly disagree with you on Klobuchar.

micah: Buttigieg had about 10 percent in our national polling average. Klobuchar had 5 percent.

So that’s 15 points available to someone.

Or to multiple people.

sarahf: But they were both really struggling to crack 15 percent statewide, not to mention in a number of districts.

micah: But how many states on Tuesday will be decided by less than 15 points?

geoffrey.skelley: If the goal of many Democrats is to halt Sanders, it might have made more strategic sense for Klobuchar to stay in through Super Tuesday because she might have won her home state or come in a close second to Sanders there. She’d certainly have done better than Biden.

However, it’s possible Biden now has a better shot to break 15 percent there and win his own delegates. Then again, she probably didn’t want to lose her home state, so maybe the Biden campaign had little say in the timing. The Klobuchar campaign would deny that — they revealed that their last internal poll had Klobuchar up quite a bit over Sanders, but internals usually show favorable numbers, so a few grains of salt are needed. In our forecast, Sanders is now a favorite to win Minnesota with a 2 in 3 shot. That’s not out of range of someone else winning, but before Klobuchar dropped out, she and Sanders were running neck and neck. Klobuchar’s exit could help Sanders add another win to his Super Tuesday tally.

ameliatd: The margins are also important! In a state like California with hundreds of delegates, it makes a big difference if Biden can claw more delegates away from Sanders. And he’s more likely to do that with Buttigieg and Klobuchar out of the race. Or maybe she just wanted to upstage Buttigieg by endorsing Biden first! What will we do now that their cutthroat Midwestern energy is out of the race?

Also, a couple striking demographic things to note, courtesy of these dropouts — there are now only two women left in the race going into Super Tuesday. And the top four candidates (sorry, Gabbard) are 70 and older.

micah: I mean, again, apologies to Gabbard, but it’s really just Warren left.

sarahf: So here’s something to chew on about our assumption that Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropping out mainly helps Biden.

Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg were doing well among white, college-educated voters — which is not Biden’s strong suit — if anything maybe Warren will stand to benefit a little here?

micah: Either Warren or Sanders could pick up a lot of Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s support — I wouldn’t assume that the lion’s share of it goes to Biden.

Sanders is super popular among Democratic voters. And as the front-runner, you’d expect him to pick up a bit.

ameliatd: Here’s the thing, though. So many Democratic voters are playing a complicated strategy game in their heads when they’re choosing who to vote for, which makes it harder for me to predict where Klobuchar and Buttigieg’s supporters will go.

geoffrey.skelley: But for Sanders, of the remaining candidates or those just dropped out, Warren is probably the candidate with the largest share of Sanders second-choice voters. So my guess would be that Buttigieg and Klobuchar are more likely to disproportionately benefit Biden than Sanders.

sarahf: Are their dropouts a bigger wild card than the South Carolina result being so good for Biden? (Remember, Biden won 49 percent of the vote, which was 8 points more than what we projected.)

geoffrey.skelley: That is tough to say. Klobuchar was a non-factor most everywhere save Minnesota.

Buttigieg, maybe, you can argue was a bigger deal, but as we’ve said, him dropping out doesn’t solely help Biden, either.

ameliatd: Yeah, I think it’s hard to untangle. The decisive Biden victory made it seem much more like a two-person race — which upped the pressure on the other candidates to get out.

geoffrey.skelley: But Sanders probably wins Minnesota now, which might not have been the case before Klobuchar’s departure.

sarahf: But to Amelia’s point … it is kind of a two-person race now, right? Or are we perhaps not giving enough consideration to a last-minute Warren comeback?

geoffrey.skelley: Or Bloomberg!

He’s still here. But we have no idea how much of Biden’s bounce — should it materialize — might come from him. As my previews of North Carolina, Virginia and Texas showed, Biden and Bloomberg’s district-level vote share is highly correlated most everywhere.

So if one does a lot better than expected, that probably means the other is underperforming.

ameliatd: I am not holding my breath on Bloomberg.

micah: I honestly think Bloomberg is the biggest wild card.

sarahf: Woah 🔥. Tell us more, Micah.

micah: Yeah, so to Geoff’s point above … If the polls are right (even though they’re so out of date, let’s just pretend for a second), then Bloomberg makes it much more difficult for Biden to rack up wins and delegates on Super Tuesday.

But if Bloomberg is doing worse than his polls — which I think a lot of people, including me, assume — then Biden should have a much better night.

ameliatd: Maybe I am being too influenced by my reporting in California, which is not one of Bloomberg’s better states right now. But his campaign just feels like all flash and no substance. It was genuinely hard to find ordinary people who were excited about him. Which makes me suspect that some of his supporters will peel off to Biden, now that Biden is looking stronger.

But it is totally possible that Bloomberg still keeps Biden from getting over the 15 percent threshold in some places, which shouldn’t be discounted.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Amelia, I just don’t know what’s happening in underpolled states like Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. We view Bloomberg and Sanders as having about the same chance in those states and all within striking distance of Biden, who isn’t a sure bet to win them either.

sarahf: Yeah, the one thing on the Bloomberg wild card I find hard to buy is that most polls before South Carolina showed him in decline. So I’m not sure how you take what happened in South Carolina and build that as a moment for him.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, and when it comes to media coverage over the past couple days, it’s been all “Biden is trying to rally anti-Sanders Democrats” and “Biden’s South Carolina win propels him into two-man race with Sanders.” That sort of thing. So that can’t be good for Bloomberg.

micah: If Bloomberg does pull off a win, you would expect it to be in one of those Southern/Ozark states where: (i) he’s polling OK, (ii) you could probably win with ~22-25 percent of the vote because it’s being split relatively evenly among Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg, and (iii) candidates seem to be competing less there than in a state like California or Texas, so Bloomberg has the airwaves more to himself.

OK, I have another, more random wild card question, though …

Could the coronavirus scare affect voting?

ameliatd: In what way, Micah?

micah: IDK!

CORONAVIRUS!

geoffrey.skelley: You mean like lower turnout? I don’t think we’re quite at the hyper-concerned stage of that … yet.

ameliatd: Bring hand sanitizer to your polling place!

geoffrey.skelley: It’s a thing, but until there are many confirmed cases, I’d be surprised if we saw a noticeable downturn in turnout versus the states that voted already.

Though, really, only South Carolina and New Hampshire are helpful on that front because they’re primaries.

sarahf: On that note, I think we might have exhausted our possible wild cards! OK, as Micah said earlier there are too many wild cards to keep track of and our polling picture is hazy at best, but what do you see as the most important wild cards going into today?

geoffrey.skelley: Texas is the big story for me. The most recent polling there gives Sanders an edge, but it’s almost all pre-South Carolina and our model shows it’s basically a toss-up race between Sanders and Biden now.

ameliatd: I guess the biggest question mark for me at this point is whether Sanders’s much-vaunted campaign organization actually delivers higher turnout for him, especially from people who are more politically disengaged/less likely to vote. If he can run up his totals among Latino voters, say, that’s a big deal in states like California and Texas. But we don’t know if that will actually happen.

micah: I’m torn between “How well does Bloomberg do?” and “How much of a South Carolina bounce does Biden get?” as the biggest wild cards. Those are related, but we really don’t know the answer to either.

And the answers to those questions could make a huge difference in how Super Tuesday plays out — anywhere from “Sanders amasses a big — maybe insurmountable? — delegate lead” to “Biden and Sanders are neck-and-neck.”

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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