We have just witnessed the most amazing 72 hours in modern American politics. We have never seen anything like this before in any election.
After the Nevada Caucus, the pollsters and pundits were all declaring that Bernie Sanders would steamroll his way to the Democratic nomination, he would build an insurmountable delegate lead on Super Tuesday that no candidate would ever be able to overtake. “It’s all over.”
But politics is driven by events, not polls. Rep. James Clyburn’s emotional endorsement of Vice President Joe Biden and South Carolina changed everything.
South Carolina voters turned out in record numbers and handed Joe Biden an overwhelmingly decisive victory.
This forced a succession of candidates to withdraw from the race. Billionaire Tom Steyer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar all withdrew.
This was followed by the highly unusual event of Biden’s former rivals Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Beto O’Rourke all endorsing Biden ahead of Super Tuesday in Texas.
Then came Super Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden won in states where he didn’t even campaign. He won in states where he didn’t have any campaign offices. He won in states where he was overwhelmingly outspent in campaign advertising. He won in states where his rivals had a far better campaign organization.
All of the metrics by which the media and pundits judge the strength of a campaign — money, organization, polling — were blown up and proved to be wrong by a confluence of events that drove the election day decisions of voters.
Voter turnout in most states was higher than in 2016, and comparable to voter turnout in 2008. Biden won the core Democratic vote: African-Americans and women, and in particular, college educated suburban women who proved to be decisive to Democratic congressional victories in the 2018 midterm election. This is the coalition of voters that any Democratic nominee must turn out in November to win.
Bernie Sanders did well with the under 30 voter (typically a low efficacy voting group), and among under 45 Latino voters (also typically a low efficacy voting group).
Biden can now make the case against Sanders that some of his largest victories came in states where turnout surged — Texas and Virginia — despite Sanders’ oft-stated theory of his candidacy that a tide of younger voters and an expanded electorate would power his “revolution.” There is little to no statistical evidence so far to support Sanders’ theory. (See Update below). Biden powered the electorate that actually carried Democrats to victory in the 2018 midterm elections.
Importantly, Sanders was the beneficiary of early voting in states like Colorado, Utah and California (where more than 4 million ballots were cast before Tuesday) that have mail-in ballot elections, and voters in these states were clearly influenced by the media narrative before South Carolina that Bernie Sanders was almost assured of the nomination.
If early voting had not been a factor, and everyone voted on the same day on election day, the results would have been far different in these states as voters would have internalized recent events, and for some voters, not having wasted their ballot on a candidate who had withdrawn from the race.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s novel campaign theory that he could “buy” primary wins with massive campaign advertising and micro-targeting of voters on social media proved to be a bust. Bloomberg, who spent a half-billion dollars, came away with just one outright victory — in American Samoa. He did win scattered delegates across several states. Bloomberg reportedly will “reassess” his campaign today, and his campaign spokespersons were already making statements on Tuesday night that indicate to me that he will be withdrawing soon.
And what case does Elizabeth Warren have to remain in the race now? She was embarrassed by Biden in the state she represents in Massachusetts, and in her childhood home of Oklahoma. She has not finished better than third in any contest and currently has only 35 awarded delegates. Her recent argument that there will be a contested convention and that Democrats would somehow turn to her as the consensus nominee now appears to be pure fantasy.
There will be a candidate who gets to a majority of delegates in what should now be a two man contest.
What are some of the lessons we have learned in this primary campaign so far?
The nearly all-white small rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire should never again be “first in the nation” in the primaries. They are not representative of the nation as a whole and produce a highly distorted view of who are the viable candidates. Primaries need to go to multi-state diverse primary days, like Super Tuesday, which provides a better understanding of who are the viable candidates.
The media must stop obsessing about polling data. This is a crutch they rely on to talk incessantly about polls, rather than to do actual reporting about the issues and concerns of voters. As I said, politics is driven by events, not polls. Polls are meaningless when a major event occurs close to election day. There is also this recent disturbing study. Could Forecasters Like FiveThirtyEight Depress Voter Turnout? A New Study Says Yes.
While I am an advocate for early voting in most elections, presidential primaries present a special case. Candidates appear on the ballot who frequently have dropped out and endorsed one of their rivals before election day. This leads to wasted ballots, and also distorts the actual view of voters on election day.
Perhaps it is time to require presidential primaries to be same day voting on election day to get a more accurate assessment of the voters. Of course, this would require states to make a substantial investment in providing enough precinct polling locations and voting equipment to adequately accommodate all the voters. The hours-long lines we saw last night from Virginia to California is a national disgrace of voter discouragement and disenfranchisement.
Finally, billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg proved that The Beatles were right, “Money can’t buy me love.” Their money would have been better spent on voter registration and voter turnout programs. The Democratic nominee would definitely benefit from Bloomberg’s media advertising team, which is the only thing comparable to what the Republicans are doing.
UPDATE: Vox breaks down the numbers and reports, Bernie Sanders promised to bring in younger voters. It’s not happening so far:
When Sen. Bernie Sanders talks about his presidential campaign, he emphasizes that it’s a movement — the start of a “political revolution,” which he says will drive typically apathetic voters, particularly the young, to turn out and vote.
But if Super Tuesday was anything to go by, Sanders’s political revolution isn’t happening — and it’s former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, or perhaps general opposition to President Donald Trump, that seems to be driving turnout.
Consider Texas: According to NBC News’s exit polls, the Democratic electorate actually skewed older in Tuesday’s primary compared to past primaries. In 2008 and 2016, 13 and 18 percent of the electorate, respectively, was 65 and older. In 2020, it was 24 percent.
Texas is getting older, but not at a rapid enough rate for that increase to be tied solely to state demographic trends. In fact, the share of the population that’s 65 and older is just 12.6 percent. Given Biden’s strength with this group of Texas voters — 46 percent support Biden, while just 16 percent support Sanders — that surge in older voters helps explain Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
It seems like Texas wasn’t an outlier. Domenico Montanaro at NPR found that, from the start of the primary elections to Super Tuesday, we just haven’t seen a surge in younger voters:
Before Tuesday, voters younger than 30 were not keeping pace with the overall increase in voter turnout. In fact, young voters’ share of the electorate went down in three of the first four states compared with 2016.
On Tuesday night, not a single state saw an increase in young voters’ share of the electorate, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research and sponsored by several of the television networks.
It’s really hard to overstate how bad this is for Sanders. It’s not just that his campaign relies on these voters, although it does. It’s that a core driving philosophy of his campaign is that he will inspire a political revolution, one led, in particular, by a surge in young voters. That’s how he has envisioned defeating Trump in November. If that’s not happening, then how is the Sanders campaign a movement at all?
Political analyst Dave Wasserman put it in blunt terms on Tuesday: “Sanders’s pledge to bring new voters into his movement seems fairly empty in the results we’re seeing so far. His coalition has shrunk since 2016, not grown.”
That’s not to say it’s all bad. On Tuesday, Sanders did win in Vermont, Colorado, and Utah, and, as of Wednesday morning, he has a significant lead in California. He has made inroads with Latin voters, who fondly call Sanders “Tío Bernie.”
But just winning a few states isn’t enough here. Sanders has promised that his campaign would bring all sorts of new voters into the Democratic Party. And so far it seems to be struggling to do so.