The Franken-Biden rises!
It’s alive! Left for dead by some pundits after disastrous results in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden has managed to resurrect his chances and return to his position as the main opponent of Bernie Sanders. Or, more accurately, the rest of the Democratic field has failed to take advantage of Biden’s stumble and let him regain his position. Sanders now has to bury Biden on Super Tuesday as the primary calendar becomes much less favorable for him. Biden faces a major problem he can’t do anything about: Early Super Tuesday voting that occurred during the nadir of his campaign.
Biden’s crushing win in South Carolina officially ended Tom Steyer’s campaign and put former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg on life support. Sen. Amy Klobuchar will lurch through Super Tuesday, hoping to notch a win in her home state of Minnesota (then drop out).
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) seems determined to slog through the race out of some combination of stubbornness, righteous indignation and obliviousness. If she loses her home state of Massachusetts to Sanders, she may have no choice but to concede to reality and depart.
That leaves Democrats with the “B” Team: Bernie, Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While Biden faced a must-win in South Carolina, the pressure now is on Sanders to clean up on Super Tuesday because the political geography becomes much less favorable for him starting on March 4. The Democratic race is front-loaded with favorable contests for Sanders. The failure of Buttigieg to push Biden out of second in Nevada (and cripple him going into South Carolina) could prove to be the watershed moment in the entire Democratic race.
In 2016 Sanders dominated caucuses, winning 11 of 13. Considering current polling and his 2016 performance, Sanders is strongest in his home region of New England and on the West Coast. Once Super Tuesday passes, Sanders has only two caucuses left (Wyoming and North Dakota) and only four states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon and Washington) in his strongest regions. (Note: While it is true that Sanders won several primaries in the Midwest, he was facing Hillary Clinton — a New Yorker and possibly the coldest, most tin-eared politician to ever be nominated by a major party. Blue-collar, small-state Joe Biden is much more in tune with Michigan and Wisconsin than Clinton in every way.)
Sanders’ future rests on a curious knife’s edge in California. The latest polling gives Sanders a strong lead. Critically, it has Biden, Bloomberg and Warren each at just a smidge below the 15 percent viability threshold that makes candidates eligible for delegates. Sanders only has to poll in the mid 30s and have the rest of the field miss that magic level and he gets all 144 at-large delegates, in addition to a likely large chunk of the 271 delegates awarded by Congressional district. But a final tally with Sanders at 35 percent and Biden, Bloomberg and Warren at 15 percent, Sanders’ haul shrinks to 63 delegates. Presumably, he would leak away Congressional-district delegates as well.
What helps Sanders and really hurts Biden is early voting. Not only in California, but in other Super Tuesday states, ballots have been flooding in. Unfortunately for Biden, this voting has occurred during his worst period for polling. Biden led all national polls and most state polls until his disastrous Iowa caucus results. On Feb. 8, Biden’s numbers fell off a cliff everywhere (polls released on Feb. 8 were from interviews in the days immediately after the Iowa caucuses). Biden stayed down until he finished second in Nevada, at which point he started a modest climb.
All presidential primaries are partly dependent on the previous contests. Momentum matters. Losing begets losing, and winning begets winning. People don’t like to vote for lost causes — and Biden sure looked like a lost cause for the past few weeks. If there were no early voting, he would probably win Texas and every southern state as well as edge up in the Sanders states far enough to grab a good proportion of delegates. As it is, Biden is now dependent on a big surge of Election Day voters to boost his totals.
Biden does have one saving grace on Super Tuesday — Michael Bloomberg. Unlike what the punditocracy says, Bloomberg could well save Biden’s nomination chances by doing well on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg has spent a ton on the Super Tuesday states, and his polling rise coincides with Biden’s low period. Bloomberg may well have grabbed enough early votes (before his awful debate performances) to get to the magic 15 percent viability and deny Sanders critical delegates.
Looking back, the Democratic contest may look like a Biden-Bloomberg tag team match against Sanders. Bloomberg tagging in while Biden floundered in February. Biden tagging in after South Carolina in the wake of Bloomberg’s failed debate/stand-up comedy.
The bottom line is two possible paths.
The first path is that Sanders has enough of an early vote advantage that Biden misses the viability threshold in key states and the Sanders delegate lead guarantees him at least a plurality at the convention. The second path is Biden gaining enough votes to limit Sanders on Super Tuesday — and the battle for the nomination will happen in the Midwest and New York.
Get ready Michigan and Missouri, after Super Tuesday, you are ground zero.
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