Tuesday Showed Establishment Is Still Powerful and the Castle Walls Are High

Super Tuesday’s voting is completed, and Joe Biden performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. His surprising wins in Texas, Massachusetts, Maine and Minnesota, combined with a sweep of the southern states, changed the dynamics of this primary campaign from top to bottom.

Bernie Sanders, in comparison, fared much worse than expected, despite a sizable win in California. Young voters came out for Sanders, but in far lower numbers than his campaign needed and was hoping for. Delegate distribution in Democratic primaries is not winner-take-all, and Sanders stands to make significant gains from the states that are still apportioning delegates from the results. Beyond any nefarious machinations from establishment Democrats, Biden was buoyed by fellow centrist candidates dropping out and endorsing him en masse, as well as other factors. (For instance, Black voters over 30 broke to Biden by huge margins.)

“Biden crushed Sanders in nearly every category,” reports Michael Tomasky for The Daily Beast. “Black voters, of course, 71-16. But white voters, too, 49-24. Every age group except under 29s. And under 29s, by the way, constituted a paltry percentage of the overall turnout — just 13 percent. Forty-five to 64s were 40 percent, and Biden won them 59-19. Virginia turnout was massive — 1.3 million, as opposed to 783,000 in 2016. In other words, there was a candidate who dramatically increased turnout. He just wasn’t named Bernie Sanders.”

It’s important to note that even with Biden’s successes yesterday taken into account, the delegate tally between the two candidates will likely remain close. Still, astonishment at the outcome of Tuesday’s vote is a comprehensive thing on all sides this morning. Biden’s campaign appeared to be dead and buried as early as a week ago. After another poor showing in Nevada, the South Carolina primary was shaping up to be his own personal Waterloo. However, his thumping victory in that state turned the race on its ear faster than most everyone anticipated.

According to exit poll data analyzed by Edison Research, the corona virus played a large yet still undefined role in the Super Tuesday results. “In Texas, the disease was cited as a factor by 78% of voters, and in North Carolina by 76%,” Reuters reports. “In California, it was cited by 75% and in Virginia by 73%, the poll found.” How the virus actually affected voters’ decisions remains unclear, but the disease was very definitely in the mix yesterday.

Political scientists will be talking about the last 100 hours of the 2020 election season for many years to come. There will be some Sanders supporters crying foul about the head-twisting results of these primaries — in Texas, with grim justification, as voters reported waiting in line to vote for hours after polls had closed. In retrospect, and especially for those of us in the journalism biz who misjudged the size of the Biden campaign wave coming out of South Carolina, the signs were all there.

The abrupt campaign exits of Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar also resolved a key dilemma for Joe Biden, one that had hobbled his standing in the first few contests as much as his own shaky debate performances and lackluster campaigning. The “moderate” field was no longer splintered, the votes no longer spread out over four different candidates. According to exit polling data, millions of voters only made up their minds in the last few days, and Biden appears to have been the beneficiary of that coming-to. Meanwhile, older Black voter support for Biden nationally had not wavered for months. On Tuesday, those voters showed up for him with unmistakable strength.

For Sanders, the two-fisted blow absorbed on Tuesday night — strong support for Biden among older Black voters combined with disappointing turnout from younger voters — left his campaign and supporters reeling in the aftermath. Even with Sanders taking the lion’s share of delegates in California, Tuesday failed to give his campaign the kind of boost that would have made his nomination difficult to stop.

As for the remaining candidates in the race? Tulsi Gabbard barely registered in any of the Super Tuesday states, save for a secondplace finish in American Samoa. Elizabeth Warren came in a distant third in her own state of Massachusetts, and performed equally poorly in every other state as well. If she remains in the race, it is almost certain she will be accused of deliberately trying to damage the Sanders campaign going forward, a charge that will prove difficult to shake given her showing to date.

And Mike Bloomberg? Put it this way: The gross domestic product of American Samoa is $658 million. That’s pretty damn close to what Bloomberg spent to win the American Samoan primary last night. He collected some delegates here and there, but has nothing of substance to show for his attempt to buy the Democratic nomination.

Bloomberg’s campaign had already bought ads for the next slate of primary states, but that was just more money down a bottomless hole. He suspended his campaign midmorning on Wednesday and endorsed Biden, further clearing the “moderate” field for the former vice president. Who knew half a billion dollars had such a glass jaw? What a pluperfect waste.

In his speech to supporters in Vermont last night, Sanders looked every inch a candidate who is in this race all the way to the endgame in Wisconsin if need be. Tonight, I tell you with absolute confidence, we are going to win the Democratic nomination,” he told the crowd, “and we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country.”

Biden also spoke — yelled, really — for several minutes to a cheering crowd that didn’t seem to care or notice that their candidate really leaned into his meandering style of public speaking. It was a strange tableau — the Biden-friendly results on one side, the contrast in candidate speeches on the other — that added an extra varnish of oddness to an already bizarre night.

For all practical purposes, the 2020 Democratic nomination race is now a dead heat between Biden and Sanders. Buoyed by a “mainstream” media exulting in his dramatic resurgence, Biden has the wind at his back, while the Sanders campaign has been at least momentarily slowed.

There will be intense pressure on Sanders from the Biden campaign and its establishment allies to get out of the race, but that seems highly unlikely in the near term. The delegate count remains close, given Sanders’s big win in California. March is shaping up to be a fierce grind, with important primaries in Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Illinois and Ohio taking place over the next two Tuesdays. If Biden wants to clear the field, he will need to repeat yesterday’s strong showing in all those upcoming states, as well.

There may well be indications of voter suppressions and dark dealing in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, especially given the radical changes of fortune enjoyed by Biden and endured by Sanders since Monday morning. Sanders’s loss in Texas is flatly bewildering, and the way in which his candidacy wilted in North Carolina and Massachusetts is equally galling and confusing to his supporters.

But the fact that so many of Sanders’s vital younger voters stayed home is hard to avoid, and indicates the need for a greater emphasis on voter turnout for his campaign to stay strong. With the “moderate” field winnowed after South Carolina, states like Minnesota fell easily into the Biden column. In the end, politics is politics on any election night, and decisions are made by those who show up.

It is called the “establishment wing” of the Democratic Party for a reason. All the old levers of power and influence are still there to be used, and the castle walls are high. Last night, the country saw what it looks like when the machine comes together behind a single candidate. If Biden does become the nominee, that machine better be ready: In that instance, Biden will be running not only against Donald Trump, but against a Republican Senate that will say the word “Burisma” into microphones every day until November.

It’s not over yet, not by a long chalk, but the rest of March will be a stern crucible for both Biden and Sanders. As of this morning, Biden has serious momentum. Sanders, of course, still has a vast national movement behind him. Whether Biden can sustain his “surge” remains a deep unknown, but one thing is abundantly clear: Bernie Sanders’s movement will need to double down on voter turnout, especially among younger voters, to maintain relevance in the race. Failing that, it will be a cold and dreary April in Vermont no matter what the weather is.