The Road to 1,990: Is It Bernie's Race to Lose?

The temptation to write off Joe Biden's chances of winning his party's nomination is just like the temptation to order a second martini at lunch on a workday: You know you shouldn't, but it feels so right.

I wrote a pre-post-mortem (that's a thing now) on Biden's campaign on Monday even before New Hampshire voted, and the results were worse for him there than even I'd imagined. I figured 10%, maybe even 12%. He came in at about 8.5%, only five points better than Andrew Yang, who "suspended" his campaign Tuesday night.

ASIDE: Why do candidates say they're "suspending" their campaigns when everyone knows they're quitting?

Polling is weak in both Nevada (which caucuses a week from Saturday) and South Carolina (which holds its primary the Saturday after Nevada). None of the numbers you'll find fully reflect Biden's fourth-place finish in Iowa and his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, but the stink of death hovers over his campaign. The Las Vegas Sun hedged its bet on Biden, endorsing both the former veep and Senator Amy Klobuchar earlier today. In an overwrought editorial, the paper warned that "Democrats see an urgent need to defeat Donald Trump and save our nation from an autocrat," but a "Sanders candidacy simply guarantees a Trump second term." Maybe Biden can pull it off in Nevada, giving him the boost he needs to win bigly in South Carolina. But he was polling ahead of Sanders in Iowa as recently as five weeks ago, so it seems Democratic primary voters really like Joe right up until they have to vote for him. So for the sake of this column, I'm going to go ahead and give in to that temptation to write off Biden's chances.

That gives us three big unknowns and one big known in the three weeks before Super Tuesday.

ANOTHER ASIDE: The importance of Super Tuesday this cycle can't be overstated. Voters in 14 states, plus American Samoa and overseas Democrats, will all vote on March 3. That includes three big states -- Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas -- and the granddaddy of them all, California. Between them, more than one-third of the necessary 1,990 delates will be chosen in just under three weeks from right now. Of the 1,357 delegates up for grabs, 228 of them are in Texas and a whopping 415 in California. Yuge!

Here are the Three Big Unknowns:

• Can Pete Buttigieg capitalize on his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire to become the Not-Sanders? Wary Democrats -- like the editors of the Las Vegas Sun and James Carville -- are certain that Sanders is a loser in November, but haven't yet coalesced around a single rival. My own impression of Buttigieg is that he's the gay Barack Obama: A radical who presents himself as a moderate, with little record of accomplishment to contradict his appearance, and whose minority status protects him from serious criticism. That might just make him the safest second-choice for Dem voters wary of Sanders but unimpressed by Biden's or Liz Warren's performances.

• Is Klobuchar a real contender after New Hampshire, or just a flash in the pan? She shows up at Yang-levels everywhere holding a vote after Iowa and New Hampshire, but none of those polls reflect her surprising strength in New Hampshire. Three weeks isn't much time to run up support across 14 states where rival campaigns already have a much larger presence. My gut says New Hampshire might have been her peak, but my brain wonders if she won't prove to be the biggest benefactor of Biden's implosion.

• Can money buy Mike Bloomberg love after all? Bloomberg got in late, presumably once he caught that whiff of death around Biden. That's why he's sitting out the first few primaries, where he didn't have time to build a ground game. But Super Tuesday was made for late-blooming billionaires with money to burn. Think of Bloomberg's campaign as one of those lavishly funded, high-tech startup firms. Only, instead of making some new phone or setting up a social media site, the startup is devoted to putting Bloomberg in the White House, no matter what the cost. If you live in a Super Tuesday state and have a TV or an internet connection, Mini Mike has been unmissable. Annoyingly unmissable, but still. His recent ads smartly play up his Obama connection far better than Biden ever did. Bloomberg makes me want to rule out Tom Styer, based on Mike's better digital smarts and a bigger wallet.

And now, The Big Known:

MATH.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make you do any math. Hell, I'm not even going to do any math. That's because some nice Democrat has already done the math for us, and shared it with Mike Allen of Axios. An unnamed Democratic presidential campaign -- I'm assuming a Not-Sanders camp -- posits that on Super Tuesday, "Sanders could build an insurmountable delegate lead while the moderates eat each other up." They shared three different scenarios, and of the three, here's the one where Sanders performs the worst:

Bernie's Super Tuesday vote share is five points ahead of the second candidate (say, 30% to 25%). Bernie would net 96 delegates more than the next-highest-performing candidate. At that point, it would be possible but difficult to overtake Sanders: To become the nominee, that survivor would need to beat Bernie by an average of 53% to 47% in remaining contests.

If Sanders does better than a 5% lead over second place, then the math gets even steeper in the old Bolshie's favor.

Allen also quotes a veteran Democratic operative who said, "Obama showed in '08 and Clinton showed in '16 [that] once you get a lead in the Democratic primary, it is very hard to lose it. Because we don’t have winner-take-all states, the front-runner is always accumulating delegates."

From the vantage point of February 13, it looks like Mayor Mike's Money Machine might be the biggest obstacle between sanity and Bolshie Bernie bagging the big banner in Milwaukee. And we might know for almost sure in just 19 days.

Or maybe -- just maybe -- Bloomberg manages to blunt Sanders but not stop him, and we end up with the total chaos of a brokered convention and thousands of violence-prone Bernie Bros on the rampage at the convention.

A man can dream, can't he?