Could Biden steamroll the Democratic field?
Disdained by the chattering classes, rejected by progressives and bad debate reviews, Joe Biden was supposed to have eroded away by now. But the former vice president has persevered and could be on the cusp of sweeping aside the entire Democratic field. After Super Tuesday, the race could essentially be over.
Biden benefits from a field of weak opponents, none of whom could sustain their brief polling bumps, a significant reduction in the number of caucuses and that nature of primary voting — where momentum for the frontrunner builds and the laggards quickly collapse. Only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) poses a challenge, and there is plenty of angst about him.
The most important dynamic for Biden is that the race is rapidly narrowing to Biden vs. Sanders. Once promising candidates have dropped out (Kamala Harris, Corey Booker). Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were not able to sustain their momentary polling jumps. For Buttigieg and Warren, their moment has passed — it is very rare that voters return to candidates they sampled and rejected. Too bad for Warren that newspaper endorsements are worthless. That leaves Joe and Bernie.
Make no mistake, Sanders is a tough out. His supporters are dedicated and won’t abandon him, even if he starts to lag. Sanders leads most polls in Iowa (but not all) and will certainly win New Hampshire.
But Sanders has two problems. First, Democratic voters view Biden as a stronger candidate against Donald Trump and put beating the president as their number one priority (69 percent to 31 percent). Democratic voters view Biden as a winner against Trump, with 65 percent thinking he can win to 13 percent who think he can’t, while Sanders only polls 52 percent to 26 percent. Both totals top the Democratic field.
Second, the Democrats’ nomination process has become much less favorable for Sanders by replacing caucuses with primaries. Sanders’ ability to string out the 2016 nomination contest was propped up by caucuses. He won 11 of 13 caucuses — he only lost Iowa (barely) and Nevada, which were very high turnout caucuses. After Nevada, caucus turnout fell significantly, leaving the process dominated by progressive activists — and thus benefiting Sanders.
Of the 21 contests Sanders won after New Hampshire, 11 were caucuses and the 10 primary victories included his home state of Vermont and fellow New England state, Rhode Island. Sanders averaged 67.2 percent of the vote in the caucuses he won (64.3 percent in all causes) but only 54.8 percent in primaries held outside his home base of New England. Clinton won 27 of the 38 primaries and all the big states — except Michigan, which she lost by just 1.4 percent.
The Bernie Bros can carp about a stolen race all they want, but the fact is that Democratic voters decisively rejected him.
With 9 of those 11 caucuses now primaries, Sanders has taken a serious structural hit to his prospects in 2020.
Sanders’ other important base of support in 2016 was the upper Midwest. Outside of New England Sanders only won 8 primaries, three of which were Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. He polled strongly in Illinois and won the Minnesota caucus (62 percent to 38 percent). But Biden is no Hillary Clinton. Biden has a clear blue-collar appeal, in contrast to Clinton, the New York insider. Biden leads in recent polls (December-January) in both Michigan and Ohio, which vote in mid-March, only trailing in Wisconsin, which doesn’t vote until April 7.
Key for Biden is winning Iowa — as he will lose New Hampshire (the highly insular Democratic voters from the Granite State always vote for candidates from neighboring states). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will be out after Iowa, and Buttigieg will be out after New Hampshire. Their moderate voters lean decidedly toward Biden. With more moderate voters up for grabs, Biden is in position to win the Nevada caucus (he has a slight lead in recent polling). Biden is certain to win South Carolina convincingly.
After South Carolina, Super Tuesday looms. Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee will go for Biden. Vermont and Maine will go for Sanders, and Massachusetts for Warren. Critical will be California, Texas, Virginia and Colorado. Very little recent (January) polling exists for these states, but Biden is up 20 points in Texas and California is a mixed bag. In 2016, Sanders lost Texas and Virginia by roughly 30 points each and California by 7 points. He won Colorado, but that was a caucus state in 2016 and is now a primary state.
A near sweep by Biden on Super Tuesday would effectively end the race. Sanders won’t get out, but there won’t be much of a path forward for him.
Is a Biden romp the most likely outcome? I think it is second most likely.
The most likely result is a slog between Biden and Sanders with Biden coming out on top. If Sanders wins Iowa (and he should), it will lengthen the process. Second most likely is a Biden sweep, and third most likely is a long slog with Sanders beating Biden. Least likely is anybody else winning.
The bottom line is that Biden is the strongest Democrat for the nomination and against Trump. It’s been this way for the past 18 months and has not changed. The Democratic nomination remains Biden’s to lose. Get ready for Trump-Pence vs. Biden-Harris.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711