As the entrance polls began to flood social media and cable TV during our Nevada Caucus, it looked for a moment like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) was becoming the inevitable presumptive nominee. What a difference Super Tuesday has made.
With a flurry of candidates dropping out and a sudden reversal of fortunes in South Carolina, former Vice President Joe Biden has shockingly re-emerged as the resurgent frontrunner. What the hell happened during those ten days? A lot actually, and we got the first signs of it in the first few minutes after the final Nevada Caucus sites adjourned.
It was a very Super Tuesday for Joe Biden.
Right after the Iowa Caucus, I wrote this: “While Biden and his team have voiced confidence that he can win the nomination despite whatever happens in these first two early states, I haven’t been as convinced. Unless New Hampshire voters help him out (and so far, that doesn’t appear all that likely) next week, he’ll need something akin to Hillary Clinton’s late push to save her campaign here in Nevada in 2016.”
Right now, I’m eating my own words alongside a healthy serving of crow. As I’m writing this, Joe Biden has shockingly pulled ahead in the overall DNC delegate count and grown his lead in the national popular vote.
Right after our Nevada Caucus, it seemed like Bernie Sanders was on track for more resounding victories thanks to his insurmountable lead with Latinx voters, young voters, and working-class voters, especially here in the Las Vegas Valley. But even here, there were signs of hope for Biden: a lead among African-American voters, and a generally broad base of support that netted delegates both in diverse, working-class urban core precincts where Sanders was his stiffest competition and in whiter, upscale suburban precincts where former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) were hitting the delegate jackpot.
How Biden got his groove back: Baptism by Palmetto
What a difference this month made. When February began, Buttigieg and Klobuchar became leading contenders thanks to their strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But when Nevada took center stage, their sudden rise turned into a fast fall from grace due to their failure to connect with voters of color. But because he scored high enough in those whiter and more upscale suburbs, Buttigieg managed to score three DNC delegates from Nevada (one from NV-03, and two from NV-02).
Then came South Carolina. As New York Times reporter Astead Herndon noted on Twitter yesterday, “What saved the Biden campaign wasn’t the ‘establishment’. It was black voters in South Carolina, many of whom have experienced the hardships described here, and much worse than you could imagine.”
Or in other words, it wasn’t the Biden campaign’s great organization (they’ve been anything but organized), or his financial advantage (until very recently, his campaign was nearly broke), or his phenomenal charisma (yeah, no), or some shadowy “establishment” force that saved the day for Biden. No, it was (mostly older) black voters turning out in huge numbers to make clear that they were in no mood to rubber-stamp any verdict from Iowa, New Hampshire, and/or Nevada.
What the hell happened last night??!!
Just like that, Biden got a new lease on political life while Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer suddenly exited stage left. Buttigieg and Klobuchar then endorsed Biden. And from there, a flood of additional endorsements from key Democratic Party “influencers” flowed into Biden’s camp.
While I’ve generally doubted that these “influencers” held all that much influence, I can’t doubt this truth any longer: Everything we thought was important about this election is completely wrong.
We thought high turnout would boost Sanders, but instead high turnout particularly seems to be aiding Biden. We thought Sanders was breaking through in expanding the electorate by converting non-voters into voters, but instead the story of the week is Biden expanding Democrats’ base by converting suburban ex-Republicans into Democratic primary voters. We thought Biden’s lack of field organization would hamper him, but instead “The Party Decides” by using that flood of endorsements (including from Nevada’s own former U.S. Senator Harry Reid [D]) to develop a “Biden Bounce” media narrative that’s helping Biden overcome Sanders’ superior ground game in Super Tuesday states like Massachusetts and Virginia.
Wait, maybe we did matter after all?
For months, I’ve been talking with well-connected Democrats who’ve been convinced that Joe Biden can win regardless of what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire. Last November, some of them argued that Biden could win Nevada despite his struggles in those first two states. They weren’t correct about that. But funny enough, they were correct about something that ultimately aided and abetted Biden’s South Carolina and Super Tuesday breakthrough.
Last November, we noticed the early signs of what would become Pete Buttigieg’s downfall with his failure to connect with voters of color. Then after her sudden burst of momentum last month, we noticed Amy Klobuchar fall down alongside Pete Buttigieg because she also failed to connect with voters of color.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar faced the music composed by South Carolina’s black voters last weekend, so they both dropped out and quickly endorsed Biden. This then enabled Biden to overcome his startling lack of ground game and advertising to assemble a winning coalition of working-class (rural and urban) African-Americans and wealthier suburbanites in Super Tuesday states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas. Biden already had the blue-collar black and brown voters Buttigieg and Klobuchar lacked, but they helped Biden gain the upscale suburban voters he needed to build a broader coalition to take on Sanders’ multi-racial coalition.
We did matter, but Super Tuesday made clear our influence over the presidential race was always limited.
While Super Tuesday was anything but super for Bernie Sanders, it’s not like he’s emerged completely empty-handed. He avoided a delegate shutout virtually everywhere, and he won Colorado, Utah, and California in addition to his home state of Vermont. Like Sanders’ winning coalition here in Nevada, his appeal to Latinx voters, young voters, and leftists of many demographic stripes turbo-charged him to double-digit victories in all those states yesterday and what looks to be a massive delegate haul from the Golden State.
And yet, the “political revolution” that seemed so possible after our Nevada Caucus is suddenly looking out of reach today. Why? It may have ultimately come down to the Democratic Party’s foundation of coalition-building. Sanders has definitely built one, but his campaign has often struggled to expand it. While he did expand it some, his campaign’s war of words with the “party establishment” backfired in limiting his appeal and convincing voters who initially favored someone to settle for Biden because he’s pitching a big tent.
So did “we matter” in a way that many of our political and journalistic leaders hoped we would? Yes and no. In a sense, Nevada and South Carolina Democrats teamed up to do what Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats couldn’t: Winnow the field, and make crystal-clear that candidates who couldn’t build broader and more diverse coalitions were no longer viable. But because our contest was a low-turnout caucus with a divided opposition working to Sanders’ advantage, we may have overstated Sanders’ strength and understated Biden’s. So yes, we mattered, just not in a way that any of us could have ever previously imagined.