Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus

The largest field of Democratic presidential candidates in modern history has given voters heartburn for the last year, overwhelming them with a plethora of ideological and demographic choices.

But in the 48 hours after former Vice President Joe Biden’s big victory in South Carolina’s primary, the battle for the Democratic nomination came into stark focus.

Biden is now the clear establishment pick in what is quickly becoming a two-person race with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the front-runner so far who seems poised for a big night on Super Tuesday.

The Democratic establishment lined up behind Biden on Monday as he raked in endorsements while second-tier candidates dropped by the wayside.  

Just weeks ago, Biden’s campaign seemed on life support. He finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa, did not qualify for delegates in New Hampshire and placed a distant second in Nevada. At times, it appeared his long-touted firewall of African American voters in South Carolina was cracking under Sanders’s sustained assault.

Biden’s hopes were rescued by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose influential endorsement days before the Palmetto State’s primary vaulted the former vice president back into the lead. He took nearly half the vote there Saturday, winning nearly two-thirds of the delegates on offer and vaulting him into second place behind Sanders in the hunt for delegates.

The results convinced billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer to quit the race Saturday, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg to end his campaign on Sunday night, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to drop out Monday. Klobuchar said she would endorse Biden; Buttigieg is expected to do so as well.

They joined a cascade of current and former party leaders lining up behind Biden just hours before the polls open on Super Tuesday: Reps. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and former Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

“Ten days ago people were asking if Biden would even make it to Super Tuesday, and now 12 hours before polls open and three of his rivals drop out, two endorsed him, he picked up about a dozen congressional endorsements, a few senators and the former leader of the Senate Democratic caucus,” said Lily Adams, who ran communications for Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) presidential campaign. “It’s like the 12 days of political Christmas for Joe Biden wrapped up into the last 90 minutes.”

The crystalizing rush of action in the hours before Super Tuesday voters get to weigh in reflected both the narrow paths to the nomination that candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar faced, even after their impressive showings in early states, and rising concerns within the Democratic Party’s more moderate leadership that Sanders cannot win a general election.

But it is not clear that the bandwagon-jumping came soon enough to deny Sanders what is likely to be a strong performance in Super Tuesday states across the country. Millions of votes have already been cast in states like California, Texas and North Carolina, the biggest prizes on the line. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg remains in the race, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertising.

It is also not certain what role another prominent candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), will play on Tuesday. Warren has positioned herself as Sanders’s ideological equal, but in reality she has competed for votes with Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

“Tomorrow we’ll get a sense if it’s enough for [Biden] and he will either ride a wave or hit a wall, but it’s hard to imagine a better lead up,” Adams said.

The frenetic actions in the last hours before Super Tuesday stand in stark contrast with the Republican race four years ago, when so many candidates continued their increasingly long shot bids in hopes of becoming the last person not named Donald Trump in the race. By the time the race was down to two non-Trump contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), Trump had effectively locked up the race.

“In 2016, too many Republicans believed for far too long that Trump couldn’t win the GOP nomination, and never coalesced around a single alternative candidate,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) campaign. 

“The mainstream Democratic candidates are dropping out and endorsing the Democratic candidate they now see as most likely to beat Trump, before the crucial primaries that could yield Sen. Sanders a plurality of the delegates needed for the nomination,” Steel said. “They may not be successful, but they are putting what they see as the best interests of the Democratic party, and the country, ahead of their own self-interest.”

Still, Biden has work to do before he reclaims his position as the race’s front-runner. He will fall behind Sanders in the delegate race when Tuesday’s votes are counted, potentially by a significant margin. The race is then likely to become a long slog toward Milwaukee, heading through six contests on March 10, another four on March 17 and 11 more in April.

Biden had several of the best fundraising days of his entire campaign over the weekend, pulling in $5 million each on successive days. But Sanders’s fundraising juggernaut hauled in $46 million for the month of February, a mind-blowing pace that shows the power of the movement he has spent five years building.

The sprawling Democratic field has finally winnowed itself. Unlike Republicans, they have done so long before anyone can call themselves a presumptive nominee. But like Republicans, many nervous Democrats are still wondering whether they waited too long.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gil Cisneros Harry Reid Jim Clyburn Joe Biden Kamala Harris Mark Udall Michael Bloomberg Pete Buttigieg South Carolina Super Tuesday Tammy Duckworth Ted Cruz Tim Kaine Tom Steyer Veronica Escobar

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