Swing State Pres

Sunday, March 8, 2020

BTRTN Super Tuesday Post-Mortem: A Biden Bounce for the Ages

Tom on the incredible events of the last week that have clarified the Democratic field.

Joe Biden was almost given up for dead after New Hampshire just three weeks ago.  The frontrunner for all of 2019, Biden had fallen swiftly, with lackluster campaigning and fundraising, several poor debate performances, and horrific finishes in Iowa (fourth) and New Hampshire (fifth).  After getting trounced by Bernie Sanders in Nevada, 47/20, Biden limped to his firewall, South Carolina, with a faint pulse. In the days leading up to South Carolina, the FiveThirtyEight Super Tuesday model had Sanders picking up nearly twice as many delegates as Biden, 587 to 305.  That kind of gap, if it happened, would be all but insurmountable.

And yet, when Super Tuesday came around, it was Biden, stunningly, who flourished, transforming from I’m-not-dead-yet to frontrunner in six short days.  He was fueled by an epic South Carolina win that catapulted him to Super Tuesday glory with all the soaring majesty of a Julius Erving dunk from the foul line.  Though the dust is still settling (with about 100 Super Tuesday delegates still to be allocated), Biden picked up a whopping 610 delegates, topping Sanders by about 100, allowing Biden to take a commanding lead (664 to 573) in the race to 1,991.

In those six days, the Democratic field shrank from seven contenders to two (unless you count Tulsi Gabbard) in a flash, with the departures of Tom Steyer on the night of the South Carolina primary, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar the next day, Michael Bloomberg on the day after Super Tuesday, and Elizabeth Warren on Thursday.  After miserably splintering the centrist “lane” over the first four contests, suddenly it was Biden alone in the middle to take on Sanders to his left.  After a year on the campaign trail, 28 candidates coming and going, the match was on.  Imagine watching a chess game slowly unfold, and then suddenly, in a matter of mere seconds and a blinding flurry of moves, the board is cleared of nearly all the pieces as the endgame begins.

How did this happen?  Well, one answer is certainly “swiftly.”  And by the usual messy standards of the Democrat Party, rather coherently.  The Biden comeback has already entered the record books, one for the ages, and it will take on historic proportions if Biden manages to win the presidency in November.

One way to think about how sweeping was the transformation of the Democratic campaign is to read what we wrote just a week ago.  In our BTRTN South Carolina preview on February 28, we made a "wish list" of what Biden might ask of a genie to get him back in contention.  Given the polling in South Carolina, we thought the list just might be possible, though it might have struck some as inconceivable.  But not only were the wishes granted – the genie went well beyond them.  The italics are what we wrote, and under each “wish” we give the actual outcome.

How does Biden get into realistic contention by next Wednesday morning?  He needs another genie bottle or three, to wish for the following: 

1.      To win South Carolina by 15+ percentage points

Biden actually won South Carolina by +29 points, riding a strong CNN Town Hall performance, a powerful endorsement from revered South Carolina representative James Clyburn, and an amazing turnout from Biden’s base, the African-American community.

2.      That Klobuchar exit after SC (unlikely, since she’ll want to win in home state Minnesota on Super Tuesday, picking up 30 delegates or so that may be great leverage for her down the road)

Not so unlikely after all; she did exit, the day after South Carolina.  Plus she endorsed Biden and instructed her Minnesota team to go all out for him in her home state on Super Tuesday,

3.      That Steyer does poorly

He did, winning only 11% of the vote, coming in third and scoring not a single delegate.  And he exited, too, that same night.

4.      That Buttigieg does poorly

Check mark as well; Buttigieg won only 8% of the vote, and, worse,only 3% of the African-American vote he badly needed to demonstrate his viability with this key segment of the party.  He exited, too, on Sunday, and, like Klobuchar, endorsed Biden.  The three of them appeared together in Dallas, eliciting one of the most memorable moments of the campaign when Biden touchingly compared Buttigieg to Biden’s late son, Beau.

5.      That he (Biden) gets a +5-point bounce in each Super Tuesday race, which would give him wins in Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, and cut the delegate gap with Sanders from say, 200+ to 100+

He got a much, much bigger bounce than that, more like +10 to +15 points, and won all three of those states and seven more, not only reducing the potential gap, but eliminating it and taking the lead over Sanders -- with a gap of his own.

6.      That after Super Tuesday, Buttigieg, Steyer and Klobuchar (if she hasn’t already) drop out (Bloomberg, too, but I don’t think the genie will go that far)

As noted, Buttigieg, Steyer and Klobuchar all exited before Super Tuesday, and the genie did indeed go that far with Bloomberg; he exited too, the day after Super Tuesday.  And he endorsed Biden as well, more or less promising to spend more of his fortune on Biden’s behalf.

7.      But Warren stays in

Can’t win ‘em all, Joe.  She exited on Thursday – but she did not endorse Sanders.

Yes, it all came true beyond Biden’s wildest wishes.

But the key question is why, why did it happen?  Sure, Biden did passably in Nevada (finishing ahead of the rapidly faltering Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Warren and Steyer), had some good debates and a fine town hall.  Clyburn’s endorsement was out-sized in its effect.  But this was not simply about Joe Biden finding his mojo.  Far from it.

A popular theory of American politics these days is that we are less about who we are for, and more about who we are against.  There is no doubt that this dynamic was working double-time in the machinations of the Democratic Party last week, among voters, party leaders and candidates.  And the double-time worked like this:  I really hate Trump, and I am really terrified that Trump can beat Sanders, and so I am really terrified of Sanders.  And coalescing around Joe Biden is the fear play.   Democrats decided, in droves, that now that Biden had proven himself a winner, it was time to get behind him, not necessarily because of his winning vision of the future – but because Sanders was more likely to lose to Trump.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar could have waited until after Super Tuesday to drop out, but clearly they were persuaded, perhaps by party elders or Biden himself to make the move before.  More likely, they simply looked at the polls, their own empty bank accounts and themselves in the mirror, and determined two things:  that they had no shot, and that Sanders was dangerous for the party. 

The party did chip in mightily, and not just Jim Clyburn – other Biden endorsements announced in the run-up to Super Tuesday included the former Governor of Virginia (and DNC chair and Hillary Clinton money man) Terry McAuliffe, former Senator Minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and former candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas.  Whatever passes for the smoked-filled rooms in today’s Democratic Party, these are the types of people who would fill them.  Not to mention Bill Clinton, making it abundantly clear that he was pained by the prospect of Sanders topping the ticket.

Barack Obama stayed silent, however, and many were asking why.  It’s a rather simple answer.  He has to be the one, at the end of this process, to lead the charge to unite the party.  Everyone knows he is for Biden – Sanders gave serious consideration to "primarying" Obama in 2012, believe it or not.  But if he stays out of the fray, he can make Obama-esque speeches to re-focus the party on the true object:  displacing Trump, whatever it takes.  

Many – particularly Sanders supporters – overstate the impact of the establishment Democrats.  Voters themselves are smarter these days, and while they are influenced by the media and how it reports the race, many are well aware that a self-described socialist, even a “Democratic Socialist” is not going to play well in the heartland.  And Sanders himself, bellowing about revolutions and billionaires, is an uncomfortable reflection of Trump himself, not a great fit with those who crave a return to some level of normalcy.

But regardless of how it happened, Joe Biden is suddenly leading the race.


HOW BTRTN DID ON SUPER TUESDAY

This is how I began our Super Tuesday preview on Monday night:

“The key question for Super Tuesday is a simple one:  how big a bounce will Joe Biden receive, by virtue of his mammoth win in South Carolina?  Because this, in turn, will define the size of the lead Bernie Sanders will have, and that, in turn, will dictate whether it is all over (if that gap is huge) or whether Biden has a chance to make it a race over the balance of the primary season, or at the convention, if it’s close enough.”

And the answer to this question was stunning.  Biden clearly received a huge bounce, perhaps the all-time biggest bounce ever.  Clearly, many voters were waiting to see if Biden could actually win a race, and once he did, by an enormous margin, the voters flocked to him.  The competitor exits obviously helped as well (though, with early voting, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer still claimed 12% of the vote in California).

We were correct in predicting that Biden would win in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia, the slew of southern and southwestern states with significant or even substantial African-American populations.  Our best call of the night was Biden’s upset win in Texas, a come-from-behind effort as he trailed Sanders throughout the night, starting with a 29/22 deficit, but chipped away for an four-point upset win over Sanders.

And we also were right that Sanders would take the western states, including the big prize of California, along with Colorado and Utah, and his home state of Vermont as well. 

We missed Biden’s shocking wins in Minnesota, Maine and Massachusetts.  The Minnesota win was gifted by Amy Klobuchar – her endorsement and call-to-arms was clearly the difference maker in Minnesota, where Biden had been languishing fourth in the polls, in single digits, before South Carolina.  Biden’s win in Maine was a squeaker and a stunner, as two polls fielded roughly at the same time as  South Carolina had Sanders up by +9 and +19 over Biden.

But the most incredible outcome of the night had to be Massachusetts, which Biden won as well.  Biden did not spend a single day or a single ad dollar in Massachusetts.  He had no field organization to get out the vote.  And he was facing not only the favorite Sanders from a neighboring state, but Warren in her home state, and presumably a rabid youth vote in the many colleges in Boston and across the state.  But no – Biden won and won easily, +7 points over Sanders and +12 over Warren.

So our batting average was pretty good, 11 out of 15 correct winners (we also missed Bloomberg’s win in the American Samoa caucuses, where the joke was Bloomberg, instead of running ads there, simply paid $100,000 to each of the 175 supporters who carried him to victory).

Where we were off was in the margin of victory, and thus the delegate estimate.  We correctly saw the winds shifting Biden’s way, and thought he would keep Sanders’ lead to 130 or so delegates and, in doing so, would be able to make it a contest.  But Biden did far better than that.

Part of the reason for our miss was that we published our forecast on Monday night and on Tuesday a bunch of new polls made it clear that Biden would do even better than we had forecast.  Many voters deciding at the last minute went for Joe.

A look at the chart below sheds some insight on the bounce.  Biden over-performed the polls/predictions in every single state.  In Biden’s strongholds in the south and southwest, what we expected to be roughly +5-point wins turned into +20-point wins.  In Sanders’ western states, Biden roughly halved potential 20+ point losses to Sanders to the 10-15 range.   These massive positive movements translated into Biden winning 200 more delegates than we expected, to just over 600 rather than the 400+ we predicted.



BTRTN Projected Voting %
Actual Voting %
BTRTN Projected Delegates
Actual Delegates
State
Biden
Sanders
Biden
Sanders
Biden
Sanders
Biden
Sanders
CAL
23%
45%
26%
34%
104
207
148
186
COL
20%
41%
25%
37%
14
28
15
23
UTAH
17%
39%
18%
35%
5
12
2
12
VT
15%
64%
22%
51%
2
13
5
11
Sanders wins
Sanders +28 pts
Sanders +16 pts
125
260
170
232









ALA
33%
28%
63%
17%
19
17
39
7
ARK
32%
24%
41%
22%
11
9
14
8
NC
38%
27%
43%
24%
46
33
67
37
OKL
32%
24%
39%
25%
13
10
21
13
VA
32%
30%
53%
23%
33
31
66
31
TX
34%
32%
34%
30%
87
82
111
102
TN
33%
28%
42%
25%
24
20
33
19
Biden wins
Biden +5 pts
Biden +21 pts
233
202
351
217









MASS
22%
33%
34%
27%
23
34
37
29
MAINE
25%
30%
34%
33%
7
8
11
9
MINN
24%
38%
39%
30%
22
35
38
27
Biden upsets
Sanders +10 pts
Biden +6 pts
52
77
86
65









TOTAL
Sanders +7 pts
Biden +4 pts
410
539
607
514


But, interestingly, it was not Sanders who was hurt by the Biden bounce.  Sanders ended up with over 500 delegates, as we predicted, and could even reach the 539 level we forecast when California is all said and done.  Sanders actually picked up delegates (versus our prediction) in the south and southwestern Biden states, including Texas.  This supports a thesis that Sanders’ supporters are deeply loyal to him.  Few of them switched to Biden, for sure.

It was Bloomberg and Warren instead who got clobbered.  In state after state, they failed to achieve the 15% threshold required to win statewide delegates, including in California, and the same was certainly true for many districts as well.  We thought each would reach roughly 200 delegates, but instead they each ended up with less than 100.  And that’s where Biden picked up his extra 200.


WHAT’S NEXT

Six more primaries are directly ahead of us, on Tuesday, March 10.  Michigan is the big prize, with 125 delegates at stake, and the others are Idaho (25), Mississippi (36), Missouri (68), North Dakota (14) and Washington (89).

One would figure that Mississippi and Missouri, southern states with larger African-American populations, would go to Biden, and that Idaho, North Dakota and Washington are in Bernie country, with Michigan being the toss-up battleground that will be the focus of the coverage.

There has been some polling since South Carolina in these states, and they show Biden +6 in Michigan, by +13 (on average) in Missouri, and, surprisingly, Sanders and Biden running even in Washington.  There have been no polls in the other states.

Apart from these upcoming races, also of interest is whether Elizabeth Warren will choose to make an endorsement and, if so, when.  She is playing it rather coyly now, which must drive Sanders crazy given their near-identical policy positions.  If Warren really is a “big ideas” person it is hard to imagine her walking away from Sanders.  But if she considers Biden the presumptive favorite, then she needs to play her card carefully – and not tick him off.

Where does this go from here?  There is no doubt that the make-up of the remainder of the primary season favors Biden.  One might reasonably expect him to rack up big wins in the remaining southern states including Florida, with 219 delegates (a new poll there has him leading Sanders by a whopping 61/12 margin), Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky.  Biden has already demonstrated he can more than hold his own in New England, and the mid-Atlantic is his home turf; Pennsylvania is his birth state and a neighboring state from his long-time home in Delaware, and Maryland is a neighbor as well. 

Sanders will have to do very well in the west (hence that Washington poll is of note) and then duke it out in the Midwest, where the battle with Biden will likely be won and lost.  Michigan will be a huge marker for the races to come in Ohio and Illinois which, like Florida (and Arizona) loom the following week on March 17.  And Bernie will have to rely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to turn on New York progressives to carry him to victory in New York.

Even if Biden is the favored to beat Sanders in the delegate count, can he get to 1,991 delegates before the end of the primary season?  Our modeling suggests that it will be mighty close.  But Biden has the ace in the whole:  the superdelegates, who are, as establishment Democrats, the very people most terrified of a Sanders nomination.  Even if it takes a second ballot, when the superdelegates can vote, Biden could easily prevail.

Right now, put in different terms, Biden’s coalition – older Democrats, suburban Democrats and African-Americans – are a larger group than Sanders’ youth brigade.  And they vote, too.  In fact, while Super Tuesday turnout grew from 2016 to 2020, it was Biden who drew the new voters, 60% of them, according to a Washington Post analysis.  The youth vote, in particular, did not turnout for Sanders after all.  And for those who are making the bet that they would turn out for him in November versus Trump, that is surely a chilling sign.

The Post used Virginia as an example of these trends:

In {Virginia in} 2016, 785,000 people participated in the Democratic primary. On Tuesday, about 1.3 million people did. This broke the turnout record set in the 2008 primary that pitted Clinton against Barack Obama. About a quarter of Virginia primary voters were African American, and roughly 6 in 10 chose Biden, according to the exit polls. But Biden also won 6 in 10 white voters older than 45. While Sanders won 3 to 1 among all younger voters, Biden still won the primary in Virginia by 30 points.

Sanders not only has to motivate his people to actually vote, but he also needs to consider strategies to expand from his base.  He has put effort into reaching African-Americans and has failed.  It is highly unlikely he will soften his message or massage his policies, so he must find another way, and it is not obvious how.  Biden, for his part, must continue to show his heart and his empathy which worked so well in his town hall, while mixing in a little vision, and not leaning so much on his experience.  His years with Obama are certainly a strength, but they should be positioned as a platform to build on, not a place to return.

Much, of course, can still happen.  So much has happened in the last week alone it is almost foolish to assume there won’t be a zag after we just wildly zigged.  Biden now has to live up to these expectations.  He and Sanders will go head-to-head in a debate in Arizona on March 15.  What if he does poorly?  What if he reverts to a gaffe-machine on the road?  What if Sanders makes headway with his relentless attacks on Biden’s record – the Iraq War vote, the crime bill, the Clarence Thomas hearings?  Might there be a health scare?  What impact could the coronavirus have on all this – are the crazed Sanders’ supporters more motivated to go to the polls than the older, more cautious Biden supporters?

Only time will tell, but for now, it’s Joe Biden in the driver’s seat.



6 comments:

  1. Colorado went for Sanders, and it is clear we are an exception to your rule. Though not an exact comparison, the age cohort share of the vote in the 2018 (mostly) state primary to the 2020 Presidential primary changed like this:

    CHANGE, 2018 to 2020
    AGE REP DEM UNAFFILIATED
    18-34 3.64% 8.46% 9.50%
    35-44 -2.51% 2.53% 2.92%
    45-54 -1.75% 0.28% 0.33%
    55-64 0.31% -2.96% -3.48%
    65 7.59% -8.31% -9.37%

    The 2016 Sanders volunteers had stayed active, working for state candidates and a couple of US House primaries, for ballot issues, and jumping back aboard the Sanders campaign when he announced. Youngest cohort went up in all three divisions. Unaffiliated overall split about 3 to 1 for Democrats, and I expect many of them were voting for Sanders.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry ... table embed didn't work. Short version. 18-34 year old Dems up 8.46%, UNA up 9.5%
      65+ year old Dems down 8.31%, UNA down 9.37%

      Delete
  2. John, I don't really understand why there are three numbers for each cohort if you are doing a change from 2018 to 2020, which would be one number? Also, do you have the comparison with the 2016 primary, which is the more relevant base. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 2016 we didn't have a Presidential primary ... just a caucus/assembly (that Sanders won) and a state office primary.

      3 numbers are Republican change, Democratic change, and Unaffiliated change.

      Delete
    2. OK thanks. Colorado looks to be the exception, based on other analysis I have seen. Thanks!

      Delete
  3. Great post! It is interesting to see your analysis of the numbers. I am waiting with excitement for the next polls and your next instalment!

    ReplyDelete

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