In this edition: What to watch on Super Tuesday II, what the Sanders campaign wants to fight about, and what the polls say in Michigan.
I hope the coming pandemic doesn't stop candidates from getting into more arguments in factories, and this is The Trailer.
Today's primaries stretch over four time zones and assign one of the largest delegate piles still left on the calendar: 352 of them. They take place over terrain that was, four years ago, largely favorable to Sen. Bernie Sanders. While some of these states voted on different days in the 2016 primary, Sanders netted a 45-delegate margin over Hillary Clinton across the six of them, pulling an upset in Michigan that breathed new life into his campaign.
The stakes for Sanders are even higher than they were back then. He cannot afford a replay of Super Tuesday, when higher turnout in the suburbs and his weak numbers with black voters flipped state after state to Joe Biden. A defeat in Michigan would be especially damaging, not just in delegate terms, but in keeping enthusiasm high for the next round of primaries. For Biden, it would also mean growing a delegate lead that left him ahead of Sanders after the first Super Tuesday.
The historically large polling error in the state's 2016 primary — so large that the Detroit Free Press called the race incorrectly for Clinton — instilled confidence in Sanders voters and hope that the media's polls could be wrong everywhere. Defeat by the double-digit margin seen by most pollsters this week would raise questions about the senator from Vermont's viability moving forward. In the states below, just as in the Super Tuesday states, Sanders has built real organizations, whereas Biden is largely zooming by on endorsements, name recognition and some last-minute canvasses. And Biden has benefited more than Sanders from the departure of every other major candidate.
Polls will close in most of Michigan at 8 p.m., with just a small part of the Upper Peninsula, on Central time, still finishing up its vote. The state will select 125 delegates, the biggest share available in any state today.
The majority of Democratic primary votes are likely to come from just five counties in the southeast part of the state: Detroit's Wayne County, Flint's Genesee County, Ann Arbor's Washtenaw County, and Oakland and Macomb counties, which contain most of Detroit's suburbs. But the state's Republican-drawn congressional map splits most of those places, and the most reliable Democratic voters, into just five congressional districts: the 5th, 9th, 12th, 13th and 14th.
In 2016, Clinton's wins were confined to just three of those districts, the Flint-centered 5th and the Detroit-area 13th and 14th. Sanders defeated her in every other part of the state, running up the score in rural, Republican-leaning counties and districts. His margin in the 3rd District, which covers Grand Rapids and is represented by independent Rep. Justin Amash, was nearly equal to his statewide win margin of 17,168 votes.
This year could be harder. Michigan's primary is open to all voters, meaning that independents and Republicans can cross over. In 2016, that hurt Clinton, as moderates who thought that the Democratic primary was sewn up (Clinton led by more than 20 points in polling) voted in the Republican presidential primary, often for then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Clinton won Democrats handily, but Sanders won independent voters by 43 points.
One reason why so many voters were flying blind: A fight over the primary calendar effectively canceled the 2008 primary, giving pollsters little to base their voter modeling on, as Barack Obama did not even compete for the state. Voters for Obama generally backed the “uncommitted” option on their ballots, skewing pollsters' idea of who might turn out.
2016 result: Sanders 50%, Clinton 48%
2008 result: Clinton 55%, Uncommitted 40%
Polls will close in Missouri at 8 p.m. Four years ago, the state saw one of the closest contests between Clinton and Sanders anywhere — she edged him by 1,574 votes, out of more than 600,000 votes cast.
Clinton's win was based on strong performances in just three parts of the state. She defeated Sanders by around 6,000 votes in Kansas City's Jackson County, by 25,000 votes in St. Louis and its immediate suburbs, and by around 2,000 votes in the state's conservative “boot heel.” Sanders did well basically everywhere else and grabbed a 5,500-vote win in Boone County, home to the liberal city of Columbia and the University of Missouri.
That helped Sanders win five of the state's seven congressional districts, to just two for Clinton, keeping him close in the delegate count. But he has lost ground with the sort of frustrated rural voters who made that possible, and most of the 68 delegates here will be selected in the sort of territory where Sanders has been struggling.
2016 result: Clinton 50%, Sanders 49%
2008 result: Obama 50%, Clinton 48%
Polls will also close in Mississippi at 8 p.m. eastern time, 7 p.m. local, and Biden is expected to win the state comfortably after Sanders scrapped his only planned event before the primary.
The biggest share of votes, and of the state's 36 delegates, is in the 2nd District, drawn to include black population centers from Jackson into the Delta. In a typical primary, it casts more than 40 percent of the total Democratic vote; the deep red 4th District, which covers the Gulf Coast, casts around 13 percent. Four years ago, Sanders grabbed delegates there, and in the 1st and 3rd districts, but got wiped out in the 2nd, falling into single digits and below the delegate threshold.
Sanders wrote off Mississippi in that primary; he devoted more time to the state since then, buoyed by the support and friendship of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. But the entire Mississippi Democratic caucus, a deep minority in the state legislature, has endorsed Biden, and tellingly, over the weekend Lumumba was in Michigan, not Mississippi, to rally voters for Sanders.
2016 result: Clinton 83%, Sanders 17%
2008 result: Obama 61%, Clinton 37%
The party-run “firehouse caucuses” in North Dakota will be ending at 8 p.m. eastern time, 7 p.m. local. It's the first of three states today that junked caucuses in favor of a straight popular vote; a firehouse caucus is just the term for an election managed by the party itself, not by the state.
Like in every caucus state, the old rules had been very good for insurgent candidates and the more direct primary could be better for Biden. North Dakota picks 14 delegates and has just one congressional district, so the statewide popular vote will determine how everything breaks down. But the results in last week's Minnesota primary were not promising for Sanders. He won just 24 percent of the vote in the counties that bordered North Dakota, doing best in the suburbs of Fargo but often running in third place or worse in more rural areas.
2016 result: Sanders 64%, Clinton 26%
2008 result: Obama 61%, Clinton 37%
Polls will close in Idaho, the second of tonight's caucus-to-primary states, at 10 p.m. eastern time, 8 p.m. local. Half of the vote is likely to come from just two counties, Ada and Canyon, which contain Boise and its suburbs. But that area is split between the 1st and 2nd congressional districts; most of Boise is in the Republican-heavy 2nd, while the suburbs are part of the 1st, stretching from the Canadian border to Utah.
There are just 20 delegates to win here, and neither Sanders nor Biden has visited the state in person this cycle. Sanders's organizers in the state have stayed active, but they have a structural problem: This is the only March 10 state where voters must register as Democrats to participate. Sanders has struggled with registered Democrats even in states that he's won this year; according to exit polling, he outpaced Biden with these voters by just two points in Colorado and by five points in California, states he won by bigger overall margins.
2016 result: Sanders 78%, Clinton 21%
2008 result: Obama 80%, Clinton 17%
In Washington, where all voting is now conducted by mail, tabulation will be underway at 11 p.m. eastern time. Like the rest of the states on the West Coast, Washington can take days to finish its final count, publishing updates as the last ballots pour in. (As in California, ballots placed in the mail on Election Day will count.) The switch from holding a caucus, which had been the largest in the country, to a mail ballot prevented a possible panic over how this contest would be conducted.
It also makes speculation about candidate strength a little harder. Washington, until this year, had conducted both a caucus to bind delegates, and a popular “beauty contest” that shared ballot space with the rest of the summer primaries. In both 2008 and 2016, Clinton badly lost the caucuses, but did far better in the nonbinding primary. In 2016, she actually won the primary outright. Sanders swept every county in the caucuses, but lost most of the state in the primary, including a 14-point defeat at Clinton's hands in Seattle's King County.
King County will cast perhaps a third of the vote in this race, and the 7th, 8th and 9th congressional districts include big parts of it. While 7th District Rep. Pramila Jayapal has endorsed Sanders, her district was one of Clinton's stronger ones four years ago. Clinton did worst, and Sanders did best, in the rural districts that elect Republicans; he got close to 80 percent in the 4th District, which cuts down the middle of the state and includes the city of Yakima.
There are 89 delegates to win here, and Biden is highly competitive with Sanders, based on what's happened since the South Carolina primary with Sanders and rural white voters. Whether Sanders can win outright depends, in large part, on how much early-mail voting took place before the race narrowed last week; both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg had held rallies in Seattle to drive early turnout. In California, Colorado and Utah, the early vote protected Sanders from Biden's late surge.
2016 result: Sanders 73%, Clinton 27%
2008 result: Obama 68%, Clinton 31%
“The new Biden: Shorter speeches (and less time for gaffes),” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
A different, less busy approach to the trail, which seems to be working.
The meaning of the biggest Midwest primary so far.
“Coronavirus threatens to pose an unprecedented challenge to the 2020 elections,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker by Elise Viebeck
How a shaky electoral infrastructure is preparing for a period of quarantines.
“ ‘There’s a blind spot’: Sanders reboots black voter outreach,” by Holly Otterbein and Laura Barrón-López
Retooling an approach to Biden's base voters, and hoping it is not too late.
“Coronavirus case at CPAC brings outbreak closer to Trump, threatening to upend his routine amid reelection bid,” by Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and Juliet Eilperin
How the virus is already affecting the president's 2020 plans.
“The enthralling brutality of Elizabeth Warren,” by Kerry Howley
One more look at what the Massachusetts senator brought to the race.
Dems in disarray
The Sanders campaign could have a bad night, or a good night, or a muddle in between. But it is already looking at Sunday's debate in Phoenix as a chance to reset the race against Biden, and it is foaming the runway by engaging with questions about Biden's lucidity and ability to win a general election.
We've seen hints of that for days, with the Sanders campaign and its advocates on social media signal-boosting videos that show Biden misspeaking or getting testy with voters. The campaign's paid ads in the week between Super Tuesday and today emphasized Biden's old willingness to curtail entitlements and his vote for NAFTA, but the chatter in the past 24 hours has been more about whether Biden can hold it together.
That ramped up on Tuesday morning, after Biden got into an argument at a factory stop with a voter who confronted the former vice president about his gun-control advocacy. Biden told the voter off, especially after he suggested that the candidate should stop wagging his finger.
“Don't tell me that, pal, or I'm going to go out and slap you in the face,” Biden said.
Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir tweeted the clearest footage of the moment, from CBS news reporter Bo Erickson. The Bidenworld response was telling, avoiding the substance, or the optics — Biden has repeatedly been pulled into ropeline arguments with voters, blowing them off if he decides they're not gettable — to accuse Sanders of spreading disinformation.
“In case you're wondering what @BernieSanders's team is up to today, here's his campaign manager lifting up videos from the GOP,” tweeted Biden rapid response spokesman Michael Gwin, after Shakir tweeted a version of the CBS clip shared by the Republican National Committee. Shakir deleted that tweet, but the Biden response did not change: “There's a graceful way to go down. But there's another way, too,” tweeted rapid response director Andrew Bates.
Both the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign, independently of each other, are signal-boosting clips that they believe make Biden look unready for a general election.
During Monday night's Fox News town hall, Sanders pointed out that Biden had given a brief speech in St. Louis, contrasting that with his own ability to give multiple long speeches across multiple cities in one day. But he stopped short of questioning Biden's acuity.
“I’m not going to go at that level in attacking Joe,” Sanders said. “That’s for people to decide."
Joe Biden, “Always.” The only thematically new spot that Biden has run since Super Tuesday uses that night's election results to portray Bernie Sanders as a meddler trying to stop the candidate who is locking down the nomination. “PolitiFact has called the Sanders campaign's attacks false,” a narrator says, in a very disappointed tone. “Negative ads will only help Donald Trump.” It's an ad that assumes its viewers are already fine with a short primary and a Biden win.
Bernie Sanders, “Decimated.” The most personal of three contrast ads that Sanders ran in Michigan, this gives the microphone to Sean Crawford, a union autoworker who bemoans what NAFTA did to his state. “The banksters that have been robbing us blind, and stealing our pensions, and destroying our communities,” Crawford says, making an argument for Sanders. If Sanders doesn't win today, there'll be questions about whether this messaging was used too late — or whether the surge of suburban moderate voters neutralized the power of this message.
Rick Scott, “Inaceptable.” In Iowa, the wealthy Florida senator ran ads in which he, personally, made the case that Joe Biden was corrupt. In his adopted home state, Scott plays clips of Sanders refusing to outright condemn Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, then turns to the camera and says, in Spanish: “Those dictators caused misery and death. Don’t let Bernie destroy our country.” The ad's utility in this primary is less clear than the Iowa spot, as a big defeat for Sanders in Florida could hasten the end of the primary.
Michigan primary (Monmouth, 411 likely voters)
Joe Biden: 51%
Bernie Sanders: 36%
Pollsters kept their powder dry in Michigan, with no numbers coming out of the state until the days before the primary. Biden has led in every one of these polls, and, unlike 2016, when they had no strong recent data to interpret, pollsters now can model an electorate based on the last contested primaries. The best news for both candidates is strength in ballot tests against Trump; Biden and Sanders both hold leads bigger than the margin of error, and both clean up with voters who either backed a third party four years ago or did not bother to vote.
Michigan primary (EPIC-MRA, 400 likely voters)
Joe Biden: 51%
Bernie Sanders: 27%
The state's most renowned pollster bungled it twice in 2016, missing the Sanders victory in the primary, then missing the last-minute movement toward Donald Trump in the general election. It has adjusted since then, and the breakdowns in this poll suggest only bad scenarios for Sanders. He is running far behind Biden outside of Detroit, including places where he ran far ahead of Clinton in 2016. By a 23-point margin, likely voters see Biden as more electable in November than Clinton. A solid Biden win today would be based on those same trends, of voters thinking the former vice president can win in November, and being ready to end the primary.
Candidate favorable ratings (CNN-SSRS, 1211 voters)
Favorable: 43% (-)
Unfavorable: 54% ( 1)
Favorable: 48% ( 9)
Unfavorable: 44% (-3)
Favorable: 42% (-1)
Unfavorable: 52% ( 8)
Biden began his campaign with sky-high favorables, but as the primary dragged on, and as the president's political operation accused his family of corruption, those numbers fell to earth. This is the first data we've seen to suggest that he could move back up, or that some of his decline came from Democrats who grew nervous about his campaign skills during the first months of the primary. This same poll, taken at the same point in the 2016 primary, found Hillary Clinton's favorable rating underwater by 13 points, while Sanders enjoyed a five-point positive rating. Sanders's inability to keep some of the warm feelings voters felt about him when he was an underdog, and the only Democratic alternative to Clinton, is an underrated story in this race.
The coronavirus has complicated in-person campaigning in ways that remain low-key. Bernie Sanders canceled a Tuesday rally in Cleveland, and the president decided not to rally in Michigan before today's primary. For now, Joe Biden is still planning on rallying in Cleveland tonight, but the campaign scheduled after that, for both candidates, is relatively light; Biden will not return to the trail until Thursday. UPDATE: Just after we sent the newsletter, the Biden campaign canceled its Tuesday night event.
“We have never held a rally without the support of local public health officials,” Sanders told CNN last night.
Joe Biden. He's continued to roll up endorsements from Democrats who were neutral before, or backed another candidate: the latest were Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Illinois Treasurer Susana Mendoza.
Bernie Sanders. He won the support of the Working Families Party, one of the biggest left-wing organizations that had backed Elizabeth Warren in the primary. He also got the endorsement of Rep. Mark Takano of California, who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
… five days until the 11th Democratic debate
… seven days until Super Tuesday III
… 14 days until the Georgia primary
… 19 days until the Puerto Rico primary