Super Tuesday, and why momentum is everything

Matthew Petty picks up the pieces after Super Tuesday to see what it tells us about the general election in November

Matthew Petty
11th March 2020
Image: CNN on YouTube
The fight to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for the US presidential election in November has now become a two-way fight between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Over the next few months, a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party will take place. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Super Tuesday is the second biggest event on the US election calendar. In just one day, 14 states head to the polls to decide who they want to see take on Donald Trump come November.

It was supposed to be a big night for Bernie Sanders, the most progressive candidate in the race, where he confirmed his position as the front runner for the nomination. That plan was completely turned on its head. Instead, a resurgent Joe Biden, the centrist Democrat establishment candidate, has turned what was supposed to be Sanders’s victory lap into a high octane two-horse race. Just days ago, it seemed like his campaign was all but over. So how did such a remarkable turnaround happen?

Biden's shock turnaround was down to momentum

In short, it came down to momentum. Just four days before Super Tuesday, the state of South Carolina held its primary, and Joe Biden managed to translate his popularity amongst African American voters into a commanding victory in one of America’s most multi-racial states. The momentum he gathered here kickstarted his campaign, and on Super Tuesday, the impact was hard to ignore. In states that were estimated to be close between himself and Sanders, Biden won, sometimes by a significant margin. Biden won states such as Tennessee and Arkansas, places he didn’t even campaign in.

But it wasn’t just his victory in South Carolina that allowed him to march towards Super Tuesday as the leading candidate. In the days preceding, centrist candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar ended their campaigns, deciding to row in behind Biden. Now, the Democratic Party’s centrist vote was united behind one candidate. The progressive vote, on the other hand, was still split, between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

It would be wrong to say Sanders did not do well on Super Tuesday. He managed to take California, the biggest prize of the night. He also continues to generate much more in donations than Biden and he still did extremely well with his core of young and Hispanic voters. But it is clear that there was a concerted effort by Democrat centrists to stop Sanders winning the nomination. Even the mildest of conspiracy theorists would find it hard not to question whether the swell of endorsements that came Biden’s way in the run up to Super Tuesday were not part of an orchestrated campaign. There are even mutterings that Barack Obama spent his weekend trying to get the centrist candidates to work together to defeat Sanders.

Now out the race herself, Elizabeth Warren's endorsement may be the key to success
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since Super Tuesday, both progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren and billionaire Michael Bloomberg have exited the race. Warren’s exit is hugely beneficial to Sanders, as the progressive vote will now no longer be split. At the time of writing, Warren has yet to formally endorse another candidate. This endorsement will be highly sought after. Sanders would surely seem like the obvious choice; however, she may succumb to the temptation of backing who the eventual winner looks likely to be. At this stage, that is Joe Biden, and if she were to endorse him, it could be damaging for Sanders’ campaign. Warren would bring with her young voters, the exact group from which Biden struggles to garner support. On a joint ticket, the pair could be a truly unstoppable force.

As for Bloomberg, who spent half a billion dollars on his campaign and has since endorsed Joe Biden, missing the first four state primaries proved fatal. In the world of politics, it is momentum that counts, not money, and Biden had that in bucket loads in the run up to Super Tuesday.

Biden thinks that people do not want a political revolution; Sanders thinks the people voted for one in 2016

What this contest ultimately comes down to is who can best beat Donald Trump come November. Biden’s appeal is that he is a calm head who can restore honour to the Presidency, and end the acrimony of the last four years. He thinks that people do not want a political revolution, and would rather go back to the gentler politics that prevailed before 2016. Sanders, on the other hand, thinks radicalism is needed to win back the working-class voters who backed Trump in 2016. His view is that people voted for a political revolution in 2016, and that the Democrats must rise to that challenge.

It seems that a fundamental split in the Democratic Party remains between the older and African American voters who tend to support Biden, and the younger and Hispanic voters who typically support Sanders. There is no evidence to suggest that this bitter divide will be easily papered over. To many observers, it seems impossible that the Democrats can win the election in November without a candidate capable of bringing this broad coalition together.

As things stand, just one thing is certain. In the Democrat race to take on Donald Trump, momentum is everything. The person with that momentum right now is Joe Biden, but questions remain over how long he will hold onto it.

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