Political News

4 things to watch as Biden and Sanders face off on Super Tuesday

Posted March 3, 2020 6:00 a.m. EST

— Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' political revolution goes head-to-head against former Vice President Joe Biden's swelling support from moderates Tuesday in a series of primaries that will set the course for the Democratic presidential race.

Fourteen states and American Samoa will vote today. The biggest prize is California, where Sanders expects to do well. And the biggest battleground is Texas, where Biden rallied Monday night with other moderate candidates who dropped out over the last 48 hours, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Sanders is expected to perform strongest in the west and in the northeast, while Biden could rack up delegates across the south.

The other major question is whether former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will rack up a substantial number of delegates. If both are able to shrink the pool available to Sanders and Biden so that neither can win an outright majority, it would make a contested convention more likely.

Here are four things to watch on Super Tuesday:

Biden looks for a moderate wave

The former vice president is riding a tidal wave of momentum into Super Tuesday. His blowout victory in South Carolina on Saturday knocked rivals Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Tom Steyer out of the race, and pulled Democratic donors, elected officials and luminaries -- including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- off the sidelines.

How will that translate into votes?

Biden's team has long focused on congressional districts with large African American populations, in states like Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia and Texas. But the groundswell of moderate support could expand his map of winnable territory.

Biden's goal: Stay on Sanders' heels in the delegate race, and put clear distance between himself and Bloomberg. His team is eager to get into a one-on-one match-up with Sanders as quickly as possible.

Can California power Bernie Sanders past the growing moderate coalition?

Biden's victory in South Carolina triggered a thinning of the moderate field, setting up a showdown that the Sanders campaign has been itching for since early on in the campaign.

With its 415 pledged delegates, the biggest of all the state contests, California could now determine whether Sanders can regain the momentum he lost in South Carolina, and potentially vault him to a commanding delegate lead.

All signs point to a Sanders win, but the size of it could be determinative. He is expected to benefit from the more than 3 million early ballots already cast. More pressing on Tuesday is whether his support in Southern California, with its heavy Latino population, and up north, a liberal bastion for decades, can provide him with a decisive win.

Biden will be looking to put up strong numbers in Orange County, just outside Los Angeles, and other more moderate or conservative areas in the central part of the state.

Outside of California, Sanders is banking on strong showings in states like Colorado, Texas, Minnesota (where he held an election eve rally on Monday night), and in the northeast -- Vermont, his home state, is a lock and he is neck-and-neck with Warren in her backyard of Massachusetts.

Sanders will also need decent showings in North Carolina and Virginia, where local elected officials past and present have flocked to Biden over the last 48 hours. The danger for Sanders in those states mostly resides in the more affluent parts of the suburbs, which haven't been kind to him over the first four contests.

Down South, Sanders might get some help from Bloomberg, who has spent time in states like Arkansas and Alabama, where Biden might otherwise be primed for a South Carolina-style blowout.

Bloomberg's spoiler role

Mike Bloomberg finds himself in a very difficult spot.

That rapid coalescing around Biden puts increased pressure on Bloomberg's strategy to use Super Tuesday as his first testing ground. If Bloomberg, who entered the race in November to stop the rise of Sanders, is able to reach viability in an array of states on Tuesday, he could be effectively denying Biden delegates and helping the Vermont senator's rise.

While Bloomberg has spent $56 million on television and radio ads in California and $43 million in Texas, the former New York City mayor's impact could be most acute in states like Virginia, where he has spent over $13 million on ads, and in North Carolina, where he has spent over $12 million.

Virginia could be particularly telling. Bloomberg spent millions to held Democrats take control of the commonwealth's executive and legislative branches for the first time in a generation. The spending earned Bloomberg a wealth of goodwill in the state and when he launched his campaign in November, Virginia was the first stop. Biden has looked to combat this influence with a host of top endorsements from Virginia, but if Bloomberg is to spoil a good night for Biden, the Old Dominion could be the clearest case.

Bloomberg's team argues that not only does he have a shot at racking up enough delegates to justify his candidacy on Tuesday, but they see the fact that he would reach the 15% viability threshold in many Super Tuesday states as a loss for Sanders, who will now have to divide delegates with up to four candidates, not just two or three.

But, should Bloomberg act as a spoiler and hurt Biden in delegate rich states, the blowback against him from a number of Democrats could be fierce, especially after two of the party's major contenders dropped out and backed Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.

What is Elizabeth Warren's play?

Warren isn't the clear favorite in any of the Super Tuesday states, but she is well-positioned to accrue delegates across the map.

On February 12, campaign manager Roger Lau predicted that scenario in a memo, writing that Warren was "poised to finish in the top two in over half of Super Tuesday states (eight of 14), in the top three in all of them, and is on pace to pick up at-large statewide delegates in all but one."

The question facing her campaign, assuming she meets those self-imposed expectations, is what she plans to do with that power.

If the goal is to arrive in Milwaukee this summer at a contested convention with enough support to win over delegates on a second ballot, and claim the nomination that way, the Massachusetts senator will likely need to win at least a few states.

Her own, which votes on Tuesday, would be a good place to start. Recent polls show her and Sanders running neck-and-neck in Massachusetts. A loss there would put a serious dent in her case. Warren finished behind Buttigieg in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina. And in New Hampshire, she trailed him and Klobuchar -- both of whom have since ended their campaigns. Warren remains in despite failing to turn in a top-two finish.

Should Warren disappoint on Tuesday, her strategy -- which has already roiled some progressives, who worry it could damage Sanders at a time when moderates are coalescing around Biden -- will become more difficult to sell.

But there is no suggestion, at least publicly, that Warren will be swayed from her current path anytime soon.

A blockbuster fundraising February coupled with the support of a big-spending super PAC means Warren won't be edged out of the race because of money issues. But other concerns, and decisions, may be on the horizon.

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