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Delegate battle ahead likely favors Biden

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president 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: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives 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 WarrenMark Cuban: ProPublica 'not being honest' about taxes on wealthy On The Money: Bipartisan Senate group rules out tax hikes on infrastructure | New report reignites push for wealth tax New report reignites push for wealth tax MORE (D-Mass.) had won 61 delegates. Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials 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 Bloomberg5 former Treasury secretaries back Biden's plan to increase tax enforcement on wealthy On The Money: Biden ends infrastructure talks with Capito, pivots to bipartisan group | Some US billionaires had years where they paid no taxes: report | IRS to investigate leak Feds looking into release of wealthy Americans' tax info MORE, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHouse unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Democrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin 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.”