After Action Report: Super Tuesday's Lessons

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary election night campaign rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

“Joe Biden isn’t going to win Super Tuesday.” –Me, on Monday.


Actually, before I go all mea culpa, the results aren’t exactly that cut and dry, except that they kind of are. All that really matters is the delegate count, and on that score, Super Tuesday may turn out to be a bit of a wash. As of noon Eastern on Wednesday, the totals (courtesy of our DecisionDesk HQ partners) look like so:

But California has yet to award about 300 of its 415 delegates, and Sanders will pick up the lion’s share. When the dust settles, Biden and Sanders should be roughly even on the delegate scoreboard.

The perception narrative is a whole ‘nother story.

It was demonstrated conclusively on Super Tuesday that one rich, old, white liberal, Bernie Sanders, doesn’t connect with the Democrats’ most loyal constituency: Black voters. That other rich, old, white liberal, Joe Biden, does. Without them, no Democrat can win the White House, and more importantly for our topic today, no Democrat can win the nomination.

So why did Super Tuesday look like a more lopsided contest until it happened?

In short: The polls, which I promise we’ll discuss only very briefly.

To see what I mean, let’s look at RCP’s poll averages from South Carolina, the state that saved Biden’s candidacy.

South Carolina voted just four days ago. The week prior — the date I’ve highlighted on the chart — polls seemed to confirm that Biden’s longterm decline in SC had accelerated, maybe into a collapse. Meanwhile, Sanders had been inching up for months. By February 21, the two candidates were in a statistical tie.

But that’s not what happened on primary day, not by a longshot. The final result was that Biden did slightly better than his best poll numbers during the entire race, all the way back in November. Texas tells a similar story. In polls there, Biden appeared as though his campaign had stumbled like the Three Stooges trying to walk across a field full of rakes. And yet, he won convincingly on primary day.

Forecasting guru Harry Enten tweeted that the move to Biden in the hours — mere hours — before Super Tuesday was triple the normal bounce after a big win like South Carolina.

After coming in fifth in New Hampshire, South Carolina + Super Tuesday was the biggest comeback in presidential primary history, a real black swan event.

In order to win outright, which is probably all but impossible now, Sanders needed to blunt Biden’s appeal to black voters. Enough not to get blown out in the South, while racking up big wins in more progressive states like California, Colorado, and Minnesota. Instead, Biden ran up the delegates in the South, blunted Sanders in the progressive western states, and practically walked away with Minnesota. For perspective, Sanders clobbered Hillary Clinton there in 2016, 62%-38%.

So that’s the “what happened.” Now for the “why it happened.”

There are two whys. One is conjecture, the other is fact.

Mini Mike Bloomberg’s failure to launch may have been a boon for Biden. When Bloomberg got in, moderate-ish Biden voters, unsure about Joe’s acuity and electability, probably took a look at Bloomberg. After that first debate where Bloomberg showed all the warmth and charm of a constipated middle school vice-principal, maybe they looked away. I wanted to look away during the debate.

So that’s my conjecture.

The fact is, as FiveThirtyEight’s Laura Bronner pointed out, late-breakers broke hard for Biden.

We know that this happened, but it’s another one of those unpredictable events. Late-breakers go for the challenger, not the incumbent. If you haven’t decided by Election Day on an incumbent you’ve known for years, odds are you’re looking for someone new. By almost any measure, Biden was the closest thing to an incumbent in this race: A three-time presidential contender with nearly a half-century in politics, who recently served as vice president. Sanders is a crazy-looking cranky old fart from a tiny state hardly anyone cares about. And yet, you can see the numbers showing that breakers broke Biden’s way.

Next Tuesday, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington all vote. If history repeats, this one might be a split decision. But Sanders can’t afford any split decisions, because the DNC will never ever ever ever in a bajillion years allow him to win a brokered convention. He either wins the nomination outright before the convention, or he goes back to being an “independent” senator from Vermont.

I’d like to close with one last thought.

If you’re a white, moderate Democrat and you’ve been worried about the socialist direction your party has been going lately, Super Tuesday was something of a godsend, wasn’t it? If Sanders wasn’t exactly stopped in his tracks, his momentum took a major hit — and so did other so-called progressive candidates further down the ticket in Texas and elsewhere. If you want to know whom to thank, find a black Super Tuesday Democratic voter and give him a great big warm hug. Because it was black voters in South Carolina on Saturday, and around the South on Tuesday, who probably just saved your party from going full left-tilt commie.

You should be grateful, and even though I’m not a Democrat, I am, too.