What a difference that a second place finish in a caucus state can make. Before the Nevada caucuses, Joe Biden’s campaign was on the ropes after weak finishes both in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet his finishing second in the Nevada caucuses (thanks to black and union support) enabled him to get the necessary black support to win strongly in South Carolina a week later. That win then catapulted him to a 10-4 showing on “Super Tuesday” and a rapid consolidation of Democratic support behind his campaign.
Furthermore, the Presidential primary/caucus schedule is merciless when it comes to candidates quickly losing their viability without notching first or second place finishes. That dynamic cleared out almost the entire Democratic field. Immediately before Super Tuesday, both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out. A disastrous showing in all 14 Super Tuesday contests (despite heavy spending) caused Michael Bloomberg to follow suit immediately after the balloting. Several days later, Elizabeth Warren recognized the obvious: she had no substantial electoral base of support, and her withdrawal was closely behind Bloomberg’s.
That set up a Biden versus Sanders showdown (technically, Tulsi Gabbard remains in the race, but she has been reduced to a sideshow, if even that), and last night’s results clearly show that once Sanders faces an acceptable alternative from the “moderate swim lane”, his “liberal/progressive swim lane” candidacy quickly hits a ceiling, as Elizabeth Warren’s did before him. Results as of this morning are posted below. So what were the takeaways from last night ?
Unambiguous Biden wins: Quite simply, Democrats want to defeat Trump, and do NOT wish to experiment with a more liberal candidate with unproven electoral strength. Not only did Biden win 4 of last night’s 6 contests (Sanders’ sole win was in the caucus state of North Dakota, and with about 300K ballots left to count, Washington State is too close to call), but his margins were enormous: 81-15% in Mississippi, 60-35% in Missouri, 53-37% in Michigan, and 49-42% in Idaho.
(Still) Strong Democratic turnout: Even with a thinned out Democratic field, turnout remained high – Democratic turnout in those 6 contests increased from 3 to 3.6 million between 2016 and last night (and that’s with about 300K voters left to count in Washington State). Republican turnout was respectable as well, as 1.9 million turned out to vote in the Republican primary for President Trump, who is facing minimal primary opposition. Of course, it’s also worth noting that Idaho and Washington switched from a caucus to a primary since 2016, and similar switches in other states have sparked turnout surges.
Overall, in the 24 contests held so far, Democratic turnout has remained above the previous record of 2008: 17.9 million Democrats voted in 2008, while as of last night, 19.3 million have voted – even with about 3 million votes left to count in California and Washington.
California Counting: Technically, California’s contest was a week ago, but because so much of the vote is cast by mail (59% of the vote in the 2016 primary was mail in absentees) counting takes a month to complete. So even though as of the writing of this article, 4.6 million Democratic votes were cast for President (compared to 5.1 million in 2008 and 5.2 million in 2016), the California Secretary of State has estimated an additional 2.4 million more ballots to count, and we now think when counting is concluded, there will be record Democratic turnout in that state.
What’s interesting about the results so far is that Sanders’ California lead has been steadily been shrinking since Election Day, which reflects how the Democratic race has fundamentally changed relative to the time that California Democratic voters turned in their ballots: a Sanders lead of 34-25% on Election Day has dwindled down to 34-27% as of today. Also, many Democratic primary voters held onto their ballots until the very end: while 66% of those voting on Election Day voted for a Democratic candidate, a whopping 76% of the vote counted since then has been Democratic.
Looking ahead: What’s next? Even though Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio hold contests next Tuesday, as of the time this article is being written, it’s unsure if Bernie Sanders will even BE in the race much longer. If he were to drop out, that would technically make the Democratic primary contest an afterthought, although Biden still has to accumulate the necessary delegates (he currently leads Sanders 823-663, but needs 1,991 to be nominated on the first ballot).