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The Memo: Biden poised for gains in next waves of primaries

Joe Biden looks poised to move into a dominant position in the Democratic race for president with the next two waves of primaries — only a short while after he was being counted out after dismal finishes in the early contests.

The former vice president is surfing a wave of momentum after his strong performance on Super Tuesday and the South Carolina victory that preceded it.

Biden’s chances and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have flipped with astonishing speed.

Only a few days before Super Tuesday, the conventional wisdom held that Biden would be doing well just to survive in competitive shape. Now, it is Sanders who faces a host of challenging contests in quick succession.

Six states vote on Tuesday, to be followed by another four on March 17.

The biggest prize in all those 10 contests is Florida, where 219 delegates are up for grabs. The Sunshine State votes on March 17, as do Ohio, Illinois and Arizona.

The largest states in the earlier wave of primaries are Michigan, with 125 delegates, Washington state, with 89, and Missouri, with 68. Idaho, Mississippi and North Dakota also vote on Tuesday.

The problem for Sanders is simple: when it comes to the big states, he is the clear favorite in only one, Washington.

Florida, by contrast, looks like it could be a near-catastrophe for Sanders. A poll from St. Pete Polls released Thursday morning gave Biden an enormous advantage of almost 50 points. In 2016, Sanders lost Florida to eventual nominee Hilary Clinton by more than 30 points.

There are general demographics in Florida that favor Biden at Sanders’s expense, including an electorate that skews older and a significant black population. African American voters cast 27 percent of the ballots in the 2016 primary, according to exit polls.

But the scale of Biden’s advantage in Florida could also be amplified by renewed focus on Sanders’s comments about former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Sanders has praised Castro for advancing literacy rates even as he condemned the late Cuban leader’s authoritarianism.

Any whiff of equivocation about Castro can hurt candidates among Cuban Americans, who make up a significant voting bloc in Florida.

The picture is not quite so grim for Sanders elsewhere. But unaligned Democratic strategists think he could struggle to contain the shift toward Biden in many states — especially as the field has winnowed and other centrist candidates have dropped out, many endorsing the former vice president.

Sanders on Thursday announced the cancellation of a rally in Mississippi the following day in favor of an event in Michigan. Mississippi is a near-certainty to go heavily for Biden given the former vice president’s strength with black voters, who cast 71 percent of ballots in the state in 2016.

Sanders won Michigan narrowly over Clinton four years ago. He is betting that his message on trade, among other topics, might help him repeat that achievement. He hopes his focus on Biden’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and free trade generally, could lift him to victory.

But the most recent poll in the state, from the Detroit News, give Biden a six-point edge.

And Michigan consultant Adrian Hemond, a Democrat who is the CEO of a bipartisan firm, said there were other factors favoring the former vice president.

He pointed to the fact that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had invested heavily in the state before withdrawing from the race and endorsing Biden.

“They have a huge field operation that Biden is now able to tap into,” he said.

Hemond also drew attention to the auto bailout that translated to strong support for former President Obama in the Wolverine State — a positive echo that he asserted could now resonate to Biden’s benefit.

Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, tweeted Thursday: “As Michigan’s governor, at the time, I can attest to this: Obama-Biden saved our auto industry.”

Among the other states voting Tuesday, Sanders ran up a huge margin of victory over Clinton in Washington state’s caucuses in 2016, vanquishing her by more than 40 points. Washington has since switched to a primary, a change that could work in Biden’s favor since Sanders has in the past posted especially strong performances in caucuses. Even so, Sanders is still expected to win a second victory there on Tuesday. 

North Dakota is the only remaining state to hold caucuses on Tuesday — but it offers only 14 delegates in total.

Clinton squeezed out Sanders in Missouri four years ago by less than 1 percentage point. There has seen no reputable recent polling from the state. But Democratic strategist Jack Cardetti said he believed Biden could win, perhaps comfortably.

Cardetti noted that three crucial pillars of support in a Missouri Democratic primary are black voters, union households and female voters. 

“I think the vice president is probably the only candidate who can put together that coalition,” he said.

Sanders, Cardetti said, could struggle to expand his support from his 2016 levels.

“He still has a good organization and he still has a very spirited base of support,” Cardetti said. “But in the past four years he has proven unable to build on that base, to build beyond those original hardcore supporters.”

Strategists across other states made similar points.

In Ohio, which votes on March 17, strategist Jerry Austin predicted that Biden would repeat Clinton’s relatively comfortable 2016 victory, where she beat Sanders by about 14 points.

Democratic voters in Ohio are “more centrist overall,” Austin said. “Obviously, we have our pockets of folks who are left and far-left. But I think it is basically a centrist Democratic population.”

Austin, like so many others in the states about to vote, emphasized how vital Biden’s strength with black voters was likely to be. In the state’s major cities of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, he believed Biden could roll up near-impregnable margins.

In Illinois, Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco noted that, for Biden, “the connection with President Obama in his home state has real resonance,” 

Giangreco added that Biden “is a pretty known quantity here — people know him, people like him. And it doesn’t hurt that the Illinois primary electorate is about 22 percent African American.”

There are caveats, to be sure.

It is only a very short time since Biden was being counted out and Sanders was seen as the likely Democratic nominee. That tide shifted abruptly, and it yet could again. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) withdrawal from the race could also benefit Sanders.

And some strategists warned against dismissing Sanders too easily. 

Ameshia Cross, a Democratic strategist who splits her time between Chicago and Washington, D.C., noted that Illinois had more than its fair share of liberal Democrats and that its significant Latino population could benefit Sanders. Latino voters accounted for about 9 percent of the total voters in the 2016 primary.

Still, looking across the sweep of states about to vote, survival is for now the name of the game for Sanders. And Biden suddenly has the whiff of victory around him.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency

Tags 2020 Democrats Bernie Sanders Biden campaign Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Idaho Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Michigan Mississippi Missouri North Dakota Sanders campaign Washington
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