Inside the moderate consolidation: 48 hours that reset the Biden campaign
Posted March 3, 2020 12:23 a.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2020 8:47 a.m. EST
CNN — Joe Biden's resounding victory in South Carolina on Saturday set off a chain reaction that has reset the former vice president's once-struggling campaign and forced his moderate rivals to make a tough choice: when and how they should exit the race.
That in turn set off a mad dash to Dallas on Monday night, where they put their support behind Biden to consolidate around an establishment-backed alternative to front-runner Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar had been thinking about dropping out in the days before the South Carolina primary, a senior adviser told CNN. But it wasn't until the morning after her disappointing sixth-place finish that she had her first serious conversation about it with her campaign manager and longtime aide, Justin Buoen.
The same morning, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was eating breakfast with former President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia. Buttigieg, had also been considering ending his campaign, especially after coming in fourth place in the Palmetto State primary the night before. Speaking to the gathered reporters, Carter said Buttigieg "doesn't know what he's going to do"-- a heavy hint that Buttigieg might be at the end of the line.
By Sunday evening, Buttigieg announced he was ending his campaign. By Monday afternoon, Klobuchar had followed suit. Within hours of each other on Monday, they both endorsed Biden in Dallas, on the eve of the Texas primary.
In a matter of 48 hours, Biden had gone from resuscitating his campaign in South Carolina to consolidating most of the moderate wing of the field the day before Super Tuesday. After slumping through the early primaries, it's hard to imagine a better outcome for Biden. With just hours before Democratic primary voters go to the polls in 14 states, he stands to be the beneficiary of the released supporters of Klobuchar and Buttigieg -- and perhaps their donor money, as well.
Biden still has billionaire Mike Bloomberg to contend with. The former New York City mayor faces primary voters for the first time on Super Tuesday and has given no indication he would be dropping out soon, telling reporters Monday he is "in it to win it."
The speed with which the coalescence occurred speaks to the level of concern the Democratic establishment feels over Sanders, and the prospect that he'd run away with the nomination before the field had a chance to rally around a moderate alternative.
Even before Klobuchar dropped out, Sanders took the news in stride, continuing to position himself as an independent political revolutionary against the moneyed Democratic establishment.
"There is a massive effort trying to stop Bernie Sanders, that's not a secret to anybody in this room," Sanders told reporters Monday morning. "The corporate establishment is coming together. The political establishment is coming together, and they will do everything. They are really getting nervous that working people are standing up."
Sanders remains the front-runner and is well-positioned in a number of Super Tuesday states, including delegate-rich California. But the consolidation around Biden gives the Democratic establishment reason to think the party can still avoid nominating the senator from Vermont, who many moderates fear is a less-than-ideal general-election candidate who could threaten down-ballot races for Democrats around the country.
"We're in the moment that people like me have been praying for for weeks," said Matt Bennett, the senior vice president of the center-left think tank Third Way and a leading Democratic voice opposed to Sanders' nomination. "Things have changed radically."
A plane diverted
Even before he ate breakfast with Carter on Sunday morning, Buttigieg had already told his senior staff that he would be ending his campaign, a source familiar with the deliberations told CNN. After the results of South Carolina, Buttigieg realized that while he still had a very narrow path, his lack of a real infrastructure in Super Tuesday states and the prospect that he would get overwhelmed in most of the big contests would diminish what he had accomplished so far in the race.
His campaign was expanding into Super Tuesday states but with no significant hiring -- just reassigning existing staff from early states, according to a Buttigieg aide. According to his financial filing for January, Buttigieg entered February with $6.6 million in the bank and was spending at a burn rate of 227%.
Things had actually started to look up on the fundraising front. Buttigieg had set an ambitious goal of raising $13 million between the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and Super Tuesday. By Sunday afternoon, he was on track to meet that goal and to have the biggest fundraising quarter to date, said the aide. But that path to winning more delegates to stay relevant remained out of reach.
Still, Buttigieg went to Selma, Alabama, on Sunday afternoon for an event to commemorate the 55-year anniversary of the bloody civil rights demonstrations there. From Selma, he reboarded his plane for a scheduled flight to Dallas, where a Sunday night rally would have kicked off the final stretch of campaigning ahead of Super Tuesday.
But before taking off he told reporters on board they would instead be landing in South Bend -- Buttigieg's Indiana hometown, where his campaign began. The decision had been made earlier on Sunday that he would end the historic campaign -- the first presidential candidate who identifies as gay to win a major-party nominating caucus -- in South Bend, too.
In a call with staffers Sunday, campaign manager Mike Schmuhl delivered the news that Buttigieg would be exiting the race. Spirits were higher than one would think at campaign headquarters following the call, according to a second aide who was at headquarters in South Bend that night. Later on several of Buttigieg's aides went out drinking. Some said friends and family sent money through the Venmo app to buy rounds for the campaign staff.
After landing in South Bend late Sunday and after CNN and others had reported on his plans, Buttigieg gave a speech emphasizing that he viewed his departure as the responsible thing to do.
"We have a responsibility to consider the effect of remaining in this race any further," he said.
The choice Buttigieg seems to have made is that his continued presence helped Sanders.
"Pete never got into this for himself, which is why he got out to consolidate the alternative lane to Bernie the moment that the math stopped making sense," said the aide.
Klobuchar bows out
Klobuchar, meanwhile, took slightly longer to reach her decision. The phone conversations about dropping out began while she was in North Carolina. Over the phone, she, her senior aide Buoen and other top aides discussed the possibility throughout Sunday.
But it wasn't until Monday afternoon that the senator opted to officially drop out and informed her campaign staff of the plan. While in Salt Lake City, she held an all-staff conference call to inform them.
"I'm really, really proud of you. I have had so much fun getting to know all of you and just seeing this extraordinary work that you do every single day. We're known as a happy, scrappy campaign," Klobuchar said. "And I keep trying to think of what is best for our country right now. So I decided that I'm going to be endorsing Vice President Biden today."
Klobuchar saw her decision to back Biden now as the best thing she could do to unify the party, the adviser said, but there was acknowledgment inside the Klobuchar campaign that a loss in the Minnesota primary on Tuesday would embarrass the senator.
Campaign aides told CNN that their internal numbers had her ahead of Sanders in the state, but she knew he had significant support.
And even if she won Minnesota, the adviser said, she knew there was bigger-picture delegate math at stake.
"So ahead of a major voting day," the adviser said, "she thought it was best to get behind Biden. And not just suspend her campaign but endorse."
After speaking with her campaign staff in Salt Lake City, Klobuchar got on a plane to Dallas to rally with Biden and Buttigieg. Biden and Klobuchar had not spoken yet about her endorsement of the former vice president, a Klobuchar aide told CNN, but the staffs of the two campaigns have been in regular communication.
The consolidation around Biden will likely help him raise money.
Rufus Gifford, the finance director of President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection, told CNN that on Monday morning he had emailed the entire Obama national finance team -- roughly 500 bundlers and donors -- to tell them "we need all hands on deck" for Biden.
"The response I've received has been universally, 'Sign me up' or 'Already onboard, but thanks for doing this,'" Gifford said. "I do sense that energy coalescing around Joe."
The energy seems to have transferred some to the anti-Sanders effort. Jonathan Kott, the executive director at the super PAC Big Tent Project, told CNN his group has raised $4 million since South Carolina, most of which has gone to funding digital ads targeting voters in Super Tuesday states with messages critical of Sanders.
"I think voters are realizing that Bernie Sanders' record is radical and they're looking for an alternative," Kott said.
The PAC's efforts have caught the attention of Sanders himself, who told reporters in Salt Lake City on Monday morning that he had asked Kott to "come forward and disclose who is funding these ads."
"I started by talking about a super PAC that is spending millions of dollars today," Sanders said near the end of his gaggle with reporters. "So why would I be surprised that establishment politicians are coming together?"