Delegate battle ahead likely favors Biden

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage The Memo: Trump grows weak as clock ticks down Nina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate MORE’s surprisingly strong showings on Super Tuesday have catapulted him into the lead in the race for delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July in Milwaukee, a lead that is likely to grow in the coming weeks as more states weigh in.

The race for the Democratic nomination now enters a new phase, one in which Biden and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Sanders calls for social distancing, masks and disinfection on planes as flights operate at full capacity Nina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate MORE (I-Vt.) will scramble to accumulate delegates in states scheduled to hold their primaries each week, hopscotching to shifting spotlights across the country — and one in which the prospects for a contested convention, seen as fait accompli as late as the weekend, have faded substantially.

With results still trickling in from California, Texas and other states, Biden had accumulated 566 pledged delegates, according to The Associated Press, or a little more than a quarter of the delegates he needs to secure the nomination.

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Sanders stood at 501 delegates, and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low MORE (D-Mass.) had won 61 delegates. Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFinancial firms facing serious hacking threat in COVID-19 era Gabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-Hawaii) had won a single delegate from American Samoa.

Three other candidates who had dropped out — former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWake up, America — see what's coming Bloomberg urges court to throw out lawsuit by former campaign staffers Former Obama Ebola czar Ron Klain says White House's bad decisions have put US behind many other nations on COVID-19; Fears of virus reemergence intensify MORE, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems, GOP dig in on police reform ahead of House vote MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats MORE (D-Minn.), all of whom have endorsed Biden — had won a combined 85 delegates before suspending their campaigns.

Sanders on Wednesday sought to cast the results as a virtual tie once California finishes its agonizingly slow vote counting process.

“My guess is that after California is thrown in the hopper, we may be up by a few, Biden may be up by a few, but I think we now go forward basically neck and neck,” Sanders told reporters at a press conference in Burlington, Vt.

The Biden campaign was more optimistic. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a co-chairman of Biden’s campaign, predicted the former vice president would hold a lead of about 50 delegates once the votes are tallied.

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“That Bloomberg is out bodes well for Biden's chances of getting to, if not a majority of pledged delegates, then a fairly significant plurality,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who studies delegate allocation rules.

The counts in California, which can take agonizing weeks to tally, are likely to narrow Sanders’s initial advantage. While Sanders led among the millions of California voters who decided on a candidate weeks or months ago, Biden performed better among those who made up their minds in the final days.

Among those voters — about 1 in 5, according to exit polls — Biden led Sanders 44 percent to 22 percent, suggesting his vote totals could grow as more ballots are cast.

Biden’s lead is more likely than not to grow in the coming weeks. A series of primaries next week are dominated by demographic groups that voted heavily for Biden in the Super Tuesday contests: In Mississippi, African Americans made up 7 in 10 voters who participated in the 2016 Democratic primary.

About 1 in 5 voters in both Missouri and Michigan are black. In those two states, white, college-educated voters make up another third or more of the Democratic electorate. Biden won those voters in most Super Tuesday states.

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And as in Super Tuesday states, voters over the age of 45 far outnumber the younger voters who favor Sanders by wide margins.

Sanders is likely to do better in Washington and North Dakota, both states he carried in 2016 where black voters play a smaller role in the Democratic electorate.

“Given the calendar ahead, Biden should be able to protect and expand on his delegate advantage and either hope to woo the remaining non-Sanders delegates to make the difference or wait on a second ballot and have the superdelegates and his coalition of pledged delegates put him over the top,” Putnam said. “Sanders's path is narrower and hinges on keeping Biden under” the 1,991 delegates necessary to win outright on the first ballot.

Similar tit-for-tat trade-offs loom in the weeks that will follow: Sanders’s strength with Hispanic voters will clash with Biden’s support among older voters and black voters in Illinois, Arizona and Florida, which hold primaries on March 17. Sanders’s attacks on Biden’s past support for trade deals such as NAFTA will test Biden among union workers in Ohio the same day.

While the prospects of a contested convention have waned, the chances of a drawn-out contest in which Biden and Sanders hammer each other for months remains.

About 37 percent of the pledged delegates up for grabs have been allocated so far. If Biden and Sanders split the delegates relatively evenly, one of them would likely reach a majority on June 2, the final day of the nominating contest when Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington, D.C., hold their primaries.

The only prospects for a foreshortened primary, Putnam said, is if Biden hammers home unexpectedly significant wins in the coming weeks — especially in Michigan, a state Sanders won in 2016.

“If Sanders is to turn it around in any meaningful way, then he has to start by holding Michigan next week,” Putnam said. “He cannot start losing states he won in 2016 with any great consistency, not without finding a way to add others he did not.”