In this special post-Super Tuesday edition: What mattered on Tuesday, what happened down the ballot, and what Mike Bloomberg won.
We'll always have American Samoa, and this is The Trailer.
It's not over yet, but for the first time, we've seen how the Democratic presidential primary could end.
Joe Biden pulled off one of the greatest upsets in political history, defeating three candidates who had outspent and out-organized him. Bernie Sanders's old coalition came apart, and his new one was overwhelmed. Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg, who bet heavily on on-the-ground campaign infrastructure, watched it lose everywhere to the old-fashioned concept of momentum.
After last night, 62 percent of Democratic delegates are still up for grabs, on a primary calendar that stretches into June. But after a couple of dizzying weeks as a front-runner, Bernie Sanders is back in the role he worked hard to avoid: an underdog whose path to a majority is cut off by skeptical black voters and white voters unconvinced that he can win a general election.
There were some upsides for Sanders. In Minnesota, the one Midwest state on the map yesterday, he lost black voters by just five points — the best he'd ever done with that part of the electorate. (He previously did no better than a 28-point loss among black voters in Wisconsin's 2016 primary.) Depending on what Warren decides this week, Sanders may finally get the two-way race he has craved, one that he believes he can win by focusing on Biden's record. But the night's winner was Biden, for all the reasons spelled out below:
Joe Biden won while being outspent everywhere. Mike Bloomberg's decision to run for president was predicated on Biden's apparent inability to lock down the nomination and block Bernie Sanders. That was no mirage: Biden struggled to draw crowds or find a compelling message in the first few contests. He underwhelmed the sort of donors who would normally be inclined to back a moderate, familiar figure.
The victory in South Carolina changed everything, convincing nervous, punch-drunk moderate voters that Biden really could win and persuading Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to end their campaigns and endorse him. In every state where exit polling was conducted, Biden routed the field with voters who decided in the final days. In the three states that Sanders won in 2016 but lost this year, the margin was better than 2 to 1: Biden won late-deciders by 22 points in Maine, 23 points in Oklahoma and 34 points in Minnesota.
He did so without the sort of organization that rivals had spent months building. Biden had no campaign offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, all states he won. In Massachusetts, where Biden never campaigned (he raised money, but held no public events), he spent less than $15,000 on paid media; he won anyway. Voters who tuned in late and had no problem with Biden came out to vote for him without being canvassed or pulled out by the campaign itself.
Organizing lost to momentum. After 2008, when Barack Obama ground out a victory by organizing in later-voting states, insurgent candidates convinced themselves that ground games could defeat the candidates who generated less excitement. Warren bet big on that theory, hiring staff across the country and putting 400 people on the ground in Super Tuesday states by yesterday morning. Her closest competition: Bloomberg, who snapped up more than a thousand Democratic staffers and built the only big ground operations in some early states.
On the margins, that probably helped. Campaigns and political scientists agree that strong field operations are worth two or three points. Both Warren and Bloomberg held on to win delegates in states where they were fading. But neither won a single state, and Bloomberg's money mostly served to make the Biden surge more impressive. As The Post's Michelle Lee reported last night, Bloomberg spent $61.2 million in states won by Biden and $30.9 million in states won by Sanders.
Biden's success pushed Bloomberg out of the race, but he has not solved some of the problems that weakened him before. He's also been at his worst when he's gotten overconfident — rambling at town halls, phoning it in at debates, chastising reporters who noted that other candidates drew bigger crowds. On Monday night, Biden made a potential gaffe that only Republicans seemed to pick up, telling former congressman Beto O'Rourke that he was “going to take care of the gun problem with me” and “be the one who leads this effort.” That was a red flag for gun rights groups that had turned O'Rourke, a supporter of mandatory gun buybacks, into the star of negative ad campaigns.
But there are just six days until another round of primaries, with no debate between them. Bloomberg is off the airwaves, and Biden is back on them.
Bernie Sanders's coalition shrank, and white rural voters swung key states. Sanders, far and away the most popular candidate with voters under 40, talked about building a multigenerational, multiracial coalition that could change the electorate. In the first four contests, even when he won, he couldn't pull that off. On Tuesday, that failure delivered victory after victory to Biden.
The trend was visible first in Vermont, the adopted home state that Sanders won handily. Four years ago, Sanders obliterated Hillary Clinton there, winning 115,900 votes to her 18,338 — a margin so big that it denied her a single delegate. Yesterday, Sanders won only 79,915 votes, as 49 percent of the electorate picked another candidate.
In 2016, Sanders had benefited tremendously from being the only alternative for Democrats who did not like Hillary Clinton. He interpreted that, up until yesterday, as an endorsement for his kind of politics. The Clinton brand was toxic in West Virginia, for example, but he could hold town halls there and draw big crowds. His pollster, to the surprise of some reporters, sketched out a general election in which Sanders would put Kentucky and North Dakota on the map.
Tuesday's results shattered that idea. In Oklahoma's “little Dixie” region, a conservative but ancestrally Democratic part of the state, the 2016 Sanders campaign had won 17,340 votes. Yesterday, he won just 3,962 votes, losing every county and running third behind both Biden and Bloomberg in a few of them.
Sanders's strength with Latino voters has grown since 2016, but after California, there are fewer delegates to win in Latino districts. Just five states on the map have double-digit Latino electorates: Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey. The first two vote this month, and Florida's Latino voters have been resistant to Sanders; at the same time, hundreds of delegates are about to be selected in whiter states where Biden has eaten into Sanders's 2016 vote. If the senator from Vermont's support in central Michigan declines like his support in outer Minnesota, it would be impossible to put together the sort of win that saved his 2016 primary bid.
Suburban turnout, not Sanders turnout, surged everywhere. In some states, Sanders's total vote actually grew from 2016 to 2020. In Virginia, he'd won just 275,507 votes in the race against Hillary Clinton; he edged up to 306,061 votes yesterday. In Texas, Sanders won 475,561 votes in 2016 and at least 556,731 votes this year. The premise of Sanders's campaign is that he can unite and mobilize voters who might stay home otherwise, and there's some evidence that he's right. But not enough evidence.
“Historically, everybody knows that young people do not vote in the kind of numbers that older people vote,” Sanders said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Vermont. “I think that will change in the general election.”
Turnout for more moderate candidates surged far more than turnout for Sanders. In Virginia, for example, turnout nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020, and Biden won 200,000 more votes than Clinton had. In Fairfax County, the center of Democrats' suburban surge, just 139,818 ballots were cast four years ago; 244,607 ballots were cast yesterday. Sanders's vote total grew from 50,930 to 57,085, meaning that nearly 100,000 new voters went for somebody else.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, the only primary states that voted before yesterday, suburban turnout was way up over 2016, and Sanders tended to do worst in those places; New Hampshire got uncomfortably close because of a surge for Pete Buttigieg in the suburbs near Boston.
Switching caucuses to primaries was a big blow to Sanders. Tuesday was the first test for how a change Sanders fought for, the replacement of lower-turnout caucuses with primaries, would affect the race. By and large, it was a disaster for him.
In 2016, Sanders won 59 percent of the vote from caucuses in Colorado, 64 percent in Maine, 62 percent in Minnesota and 79 percent in Utah. That won him 127 of the 201 delegates available on caucus day, a margin he grew when conventions were held to select more at-large delegates — a practice largely abandoned this year, as the party is binding more delegates to primary results.
In every state, Sanders fall far short of his old margins. He lost Minnesota outright, winning just 30 percent of the vote. He was heading toward defeat in Maine, with just 33 percent of the vote after all but some rural precincts were counted. Sanders won Utah and Colorado, but by smaller margins than in 2016, with his vote coming in below 40 percent in both states. The slow count left the delegate math uncertain, but Bloomberg, Warren and Biden were all tracking above 15 percent, putting them on the board.
Four years ago, landslides in caucuses helped Sanders stay relatively close to Clinton in the delegate count; he ended that cycle's Super Tuesday trailing badly but got closer in April and May. But if other caucus-to-primary states look like last night's there, Sanders has little to gain.
Idaho and Washington, which vote next week, were landslide states in 2016; he grabbed 78 percent in the first state and 73 percent in the second, netting a total of 60 delegates over Clinton. Winning them by smaller margins could shrink his advantage to the single digits; losing either would put Biden even further out of reach.
“Joe Biden romps in Super Tuesday presidential contests,” by Matt Viser and Chelsea Janes
What happened last night.
“Bernie vs. Warren tensions are mounting just as moderates unite,” by Holly Otterbein
Dem(ocratic socialist)s in disarray.
“Bloomberg, finally on the ballot, gets little for his millions,” by Michael Scherer
What $500 million can buy in 2020.
“Latino wave put Bernie Sanders on top in California,” by Gustavo Arellano
Inside the surge for “Tío Bernie.”
How have you not clicked on this yet?
In the states
We simply don't have enough votes from California to write definitively about what happened in the state's down-ballot races. More than 2 million ballots, at least, have yet to be processed.
North Carolina. Republicans tried and failed to make trouble for Cal Cunningham, a former state senator recruited by national Democrats to challenge Sen. Thom Tillis. The Senate Leadership Fund, a pro-GOP super PAC, helped fund a $3 million pop-up PAC to benefit Erica Smith, a black, female, left-wing state senator who struggled to raise money on her own. Republicans were enticed by early polling that found Cunningham, who'd lost a statewide primary 10 years ago, was struggling to get known again.
The money breathed life into Smith's campaign, but not enough to spook Cunningham. VoteVets, a liberal super PAC, had spent even more money promoting him, and the GOP's meddling effort was well covered in local media. Cunningham beat Smith by 22 points, running strongest in the state's big urban counties, losing in only a few rural areas where black voters were dominant.
Texas. National Democrats got the candidate they want in the Senate race here, sort of — MJ Hegar, a 2018 congressional candidate who lost that race narrowly, won at least 23 percent of the vote and secured a spot in the May runoff. The contest for the second runoff slot was too close to call, with former Beto O’Rourke organizer Cristina Ramirez narrowly ahead of Royce West, a black state senator from Dallas, but a few precincts still were not counted.
The primary was unusually crowded, with Democrats who might have passed on a Senate race feeling energized by O’Rourke’s narrow 2018 defeat. (In Texas, the bench of Democrats with moral victories is bigger than the bench of winners.) The difference between a quiet primary and a contested one was most visible in the vote totals for Sema Hernandez, a socialist activist with an inexpensive campaign who’d won 24 percent of the vote in the 2018 primary with O’Rourke. She won just 8 percent of the vote yesterday, amid much higher turnout.
The left had been more focused on the primary in the 28th Congressional District, where Rep. Henry Cuellar was targeted early by Justice Democrats and its recruit, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros. The first-time candidate, a former Cuellar intern, did better than many Democrats expected; she lost by just four points. It was a tougher race than the one Republican Rep. Kay Granger faced in the conservative 12th District, where outside money and independent wealth got a challenger only within 16 points.
“This is just the beginning,” Cisneros said in a statement. “The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear — and our movement was victorious in proving we're within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas.”
Alabama. Jeff Sessions's bid to win back his old Senate seat passed its first test, with the former attorney general taking 31 percent of the vote in a primary against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. But he narrowly trailed Tuberville in the final results, by fewer than 8,000 votes, in a field where every other candidate saved its harshest attacks for Sessions. The primary probably ended the career of Roy Moore, whose disastrous 2017 run led to the victory of Sen. Doug Jones. He managed just 7 percent of the vote, worse than he'd ever done, far behind the regional candidacy of coastal Rep. Bradley Byrne.
California. We won't know the final vote totals in this state for weeks; remember, in 2018, one congressional race was called for a Republican (then-Rep. David Valadao) who ended up losing narrowly. But in the 25th Congressional District, where the resignation of former Rep. Katie Hill kicked off a special election, state legislator Christy Smith looked to secure the lead spot in a May runoff, with an unsettled Republican contest for the other spot — former congressman Steve Knight entered the race late, while veteran Mike Garcia, who had been running against Hill, held an early lead. The candidacy of Cenk Uygur, the co-founder of the Young Turks video network, came to an end with a single-digit showing, a major setback for his goal of proving that left-wing candidates could build a new electorate and win anywhere.
The results in two open seats were unsettled, but the Democratic presidential primary, which drove partisan turnout, seemed to help the party's candidates. In the early count, Democrats Sara Jacobs and Georgette Gomez were on the way to qualifying for the November runoff to replace retiring Rep. Susan Davis, locking out the GOP. In the 50th District, where Duncan Hunter's resignation opened the seat, 2018 Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar secured a place in the runoff; former congressman Darrell Issa, who abandoned the more competitive 49th District last cycle, led former city councilman Carl DeMaio in the race to be the Republican in that runoff.
Bernie Sanders, “Feel the Bern.” This isn't the first time Sanders has deployed imagery of Barack Obama in a spot, but he has never based one on the former president before. Obama is the only voice in this 30-second spot, which compiles his praise for Sanders, most of it from the period when the senator had lost the 2016 primary and was conceding to Hillary Clinton at the Philadelphia convention.
It was one in a trio of spots Sanders released Wednesday, two of them going after Biden's trade and Social Security record, but this ad angered the Biden campaign more than the others. “As recent history has proven, no quantity of ads can rewrite history,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates. “There's no substitute for genuinely having the back of the best president of our lifetimes.” At a news conference in Burlington, asked about the spot, Sanders argued that his support for Obama had been obscured by unfair media coverage.
“We have worked with President Obama,” Sanders said. “I'm not going to say he and I are best friends. We talk now and then."
After $500 million and 101 days on the trail, Mike Bloomberg ended his quest for the presidency, and probably the final campaign of his life. It did not match the lofty expectations of his strategists, some of whom had spent years sketching out how the Democrat-turned-Republican, turned-independent, turned-Democrat could rewrite the rules of American politics. They did not get into this to win America Samoa.
“I’m a believer in using data to inform decisions,” Bloomberg said in a statement, while endorsing Joe Biden's campaign. “After yesterday’s results, the delegate math has become virtually impossible — and a viable path to the nomination no longer exists.”
No candidate had ever spent so much money on a primary campaign. No candidate had spent so much personal wealth on any campaign, ever. No one had really tried to skip the early states to focus on Super Tuesday. But it just didn't work, with Bloomberg tumbling below the delegate threshold even in some places where he was the only candidate who'd campaigned and set up organizations. On Wednesday, left-leaning Democrats did not disguise their schadenfreude.
“He brought a lot of money to the race,” said a dismissive Sen. Bernie Sanders, suggesting that the media would miss all the money he threw at advertising.
“We think it’s important that people respect Elizabeth Warren for what she’s done," said Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. “Michael Bloomberg is not a candidate today because of Elizabeth Warren. She diced and sliced and roasted him, and spit him out.”
Bloomberg will leave behind a network of campaign offices and staffers, some of which he had pledged to devote to beating the president even if he was not the nominee. He had talked before about leaving operations up in swing states, with fully funded campaign teams, something that Sanders said he would reject but Biden has not rejected.
Bernie Sanders. He'll sit for an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow tonight, before returning to the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Warren. She has scheduled town halls in Michigan and Arizona for Friday and Saturday, though it's unclear what will happen as she reassesses her place in the race.
Joe Biden. He's holding a fundraiser in California before returning to the trail.
Tulsi Gabbard. She won at least one delegate in American Samoa, her birthplace. Under the DNC rules that governed the last debate, that could get her onstage, but the party has already suggested that there will be new standards for the March 15 event in Phoenix, reflecting the 2,000-plus delegates that will have been selected by then. Gabbard returned to the House today, voting to advance the Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act.
… six days until Super Tuesday II
… 11 days until the 11th Democratic debate
… 13 days until Super Tuesday III
… 20 days until the Georgia primary
… 25 days until the Puerto Rico primary