Polling before the debate showed that only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg were doing well enough in enough states to meet that test. Sanders leads or is tied for first in every state except Arkansas, Oklahoma and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota. Biden is second in five states and will surely do well in two unpolled states, Alabama and Tennessee, which are home to large black populations. Bloomberg leads or is tied for the lead in three states and is close in four others to the 15 percent mark that candidates need to get delegates. No other candidate comes close to meeting that breadth and depth of support.
This means the other candidates needed to land some knockout blows or otherwise stand out from the field to propel themselves into the campaign’s next stage. None succeeded.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came the closest by reprising her passionate attacks on Bloomberg’s record as mayor and as chief executive of his eponymous company. If Democrats are looking for a progressive who is a strong champion of feminist values, she made a good case that she’s that person. But it’s not clear there are a lot of votes there, and polls show she may not even win her home state next week. She will likely garner some delegates here and there but no big wins.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg tried a different tack, contrasting himself with Sanders as the choice for moderate Democrats who want to beat President Trump. He was pretty effective in making that case, but his problem is that Biden owns that lane. Buttigieg needs Biden to fall for him to rise, but Biden’s strength — and Buttigieg’s weakness — among black voters keeps the former VP afloat. Buttigieg was nowhere near first place in any state going into Tuesday night. He was also nowhere near the magic 15 percent mark in California or Texas, the two states awarding the most delegates on Super Tuesday. And he’s not going to surge based on Tuesday night’s performance alone.
Klobuchar is another candidate who needed a home run but hit a single. She’s even further behind than Buttigieg everywhere except Minnesota and is even more obviously running as the Biden alternative. She again came off as knowledgeable, studious and serious but remains curiously passionless in most of her exchanges. Her New Hampshire debate moment, which produced the “Klobucharge” that propelled her to third place in that state, was fueled by rare moments where she dropped the careful facade and let her genuine feelings show. If this were high school, she would clearly be voted “most likely to succeed” but not elected class president. Case closed.
Tom Steyer remains the oddity in this race, a strangely awkward white businessman who nonetheless has connected with a segment of the black community. He did well in black precincts in last Saturday’s Nevada caucuses and is polling well among blacks in South Carolina ahead of Saturday’s primary. He still remains well behind Biden in that demographic and is far behind fellow progressives Sanders and Warren for support in the party’s left wing. He’ll likely finish third this weekend, get clobbered on Super Tuesday, and leave the race for good with only a few delegates to show despite spending more than $200 million.
A week is a long time in politics, and perhaps something will happen to shake up the narrative. But it looks like that for all of the past year’s hullabaloo, the contest will come down to three septuagenarians who started the race with name identification or money. Let the real games begin.