Faced with the growing likelihood of an electoral disaster for Democrat candidates with socialist Senator Bernie Sanders as their nominee in November, and the unthinkable prospect of Donald Trump winning a second term as president, establishment Democrats put aside their well-founded concerns over the viability of former Vice President Joe Biden. At the last minute, following the South Carolina primary, they closed ranks behind Biden to prevent Sanders from building up an insurmountable delegate lead in last week’s Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.
The wake-up call for the party establishment was Sanders’ crushing defeat of Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar in the Nevada caucuses on February 22. Beating Biden, his nearest opponent in Nevada, by 28 points, Sanders demonstrated his strong support in the Latino community which has grown dramatically in recent years in several states across the West.
Pete Buttigieg, who had been virtually tied with Sanders in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, finished a weak third, six points behind Biden. The remaining top tier candidates, Warren and Klobuchar, were also discredited by emerging from Nevada with vote totals in the single digits, leaving Biden, despite his weak second place finish, as the most viable of the alternatives to Sanders.
Political pundits agreed that the February 29 South Carolina primary would be the last chance for Sanders’ opponents to slow his momentum before going into critical Super Tuesday contests just three days later, on March 2, which would select one-third of all of the convention delegates who would choose the Democrat nominee at the Milwaukee national convention this summer.
DEMOCRAT ESTABLISHMENT PANICKED
As Super Tuesday approached, the Democrat establishment was on the edge of panic. Biden’s campaign had long touted his strong support from South Carolina’s largely elderly and black voters in the polls as his “firewall.” But in the final weeks before the South Carolina primary, Sanders closed the gap, and Biden’s once huge lead in the state’s polls shrank to single digits.
Party leaders were further alarmed by Sanders’ post-Nevada caucus statements in which he doubled down on his previous defense of the communist Castro regime in Cuba and repeated his promise to lead a socialist, working class political revolution against the Democrats’ big business and Wall Street supporters. Party leaders feared that it would take a political miracle for Biden to recover and defeat Sanders in South Carolina convincingly enough to back up his boast that he was the candidate most capable of defeating Donald Trump in November.
Their prayers were answered with the endorsement of Biden by the state’s foremost black political leader, Congressman Jim Clyburn, the morning after the South Carolina debate. Three days later, Biden crushed Sanders and his other opponents in South Carolina just as decisively as Sanders had in Nevada, piling up a 29-point lead over the Vermont senator, and crushing the last hopes of Tom Steyer, Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar.
BIDEN BECAME THE LAST MAINSTREAM CANDIDATE STANDING
His South Carolina victory left Biden as the last candidate standing between Sanders and the nomination, and party leaders wasted no time unifying behind the vice president. They quickly pressured the other mainstream candidates to drop of the race to maximize Biden’s chances on Super Tuesday. At a dramatic primary eve campaign event in Dallas, Texas, designed to draw maximum national media attention, party officials organized public endorsements of Biden by Buttigieg, Klobuchar, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Harry Reid, the former Senate Majority Leader from Nevada.
It was widely reported that, behind the scenes, former Democrat presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, as well as other party leaders, had been urging Biden’s competitors to publicly endorse him. They didn’t do it for Biden’s sake, but rather because they feared that Sanders’ name at the top of the ballot in November would hurt the party’s other candidates running for federal, state and local offices across the country. They feared that Sanders would cost the Democrats the seats of about 30 freshmen moderate Congressmen who gave them majority control of the House, and rob them of the opportunity to take back control of the Senate in November.
TEXAS WAS THE BELLWEATHER
The battle in Texas between Sanders’ well-funded organization of progressive activists and the newly re-unified forces of the Democrat establishment supporting Biden reflected how quickly the race had changed. After California, in which Sanders had long held a commanding lead in the polls over all the other Democrat candidates, Texas offered the largest haul of convention delegates for the primary winner. Texas is also crucial to Democrat hopes for beating Donald Trump in November.
Texas has been a reliably Republican state in presidential elections going back to 1980. But in recent elections, an increase in the Latino voter population has made the state more competitive. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the state by nine points, but when Republican Senator Ted Cruz ran for re-election in 2018, he defeated Congressman Beto O’Rourke by less than three points. Many Democrats believe that with the right presidential candidate, they have a chance to beat Trump in Texas in November, and take back the White House.
Shortly after the polls closed in Texas early Super Tuesday evening, Sanders, who had been leading in the opinion polls, quickly built up a 70,000-vote statewide lead over Biden, largely reflecting the absentee ballots, which were counted first. But as the night wore on, Sanders’ lead steadily reduced, reflecting the votes cast earlier that day. By the time the counting was finished early the next morning, the standings had been reversed and Biden was holding a more than 90,000 vote lead over Sanders statewide, assuring him the lion’s share of the state’s 228 delegates.
BIDEN WON IN STATES WHERE HE NEVER CAMPAIGNED
Texas was only the largest of several surprising Biden victories which enabled him to emerge as the clear winner over Sanders on Super Tuesday nationwide. Biden won in 10 out of the 14 states that day, even though the Vermont socialist did beat Biden by an impressive 34-25 point margin in California, assuring that Sanders will be assigned a plurality of that state’s 415 pledged convention delegates.
Following the pattern set in South Carolina, Biden was able to sweep the Southern states with the strong support of black voters. Thanks to the support of the party establishment, Biden was also able to win on Super Tuesday in Massachusetts and Minnesota, even though he did not actively campaign or advertise in either of those states. Aside from California, Sanders was only able to win in his home state of Vermont and the western states of Colorado and Utah.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who entered the campaign late last year, and whose name appeared on primary ballots for the first time on Super Tuesday, spent half a billion dollars of his own money in campaign ads. He came away with only a victory in American Samoa to show for the investment, finishing far behind both Biden and Sanders in the rest of the country. Bloomberg dropped out of the race the next day, expressing no regrets and pledging his full support to Biden for the nomination and subsequent efforts to defeat Trump’s bid for a second term. “I am clear-eyed about our overriding objective, and that is victory in November. I will not be our party’s nominee, but I will not walk away from the most important political fight of my life,” Bloomberg declared.
Elizabeth Warren also dropped out of the race this week, after suffering the embarrassment of coming in third behind Biden and Sanders in her home state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday. But unlike Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Warren did not fall in line with the party establishment by endorsing Biden. For the time being, that leaves the 64 pledged convention delegates she has won so far still up for grabs.
CONSEQUENCES OF PROPORTIONAL DELEGATE DISTRIBUTION
According to Democrat party primary rules, Biden and Sanders and the other candidates who got at least 15% of the vote will divide the convention delegates for each of the Super Tuesday states proportionately according to a complex formula which can take several days or even weeks to fully calculate. By the end of last week, as the counting of absentee mail ballots and calculations continued, Biden held a 69-delegate lead nationally over Sanders, 595 to 526, with another 151 delegates remaining to be allocated in California – which Sanders won by about nine points in the popular vote – and another 104 delegates in the other 13 Super Tuesday states, most of which were won by Biden.
When all the Super Tuesday counting is done, Biden is likely to emerge with a small convention delegate lead. This leaves Sanders facing a one-on-one uphill battle against Biden as another 1,000 convention delegates are chosen in the primaries and caucuses of 11 more states before the end of March. These include Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Georgia, where Biden is heavily favored to win.
The next cluster of big state primaries will take place on April 28, when Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island will hold their primaries to select another 600 convention delegates. After another dozen contests scattered across the country and the calendar, the delegate selection process will end on June 6, when the Virgin Islands hold their Democrat caucus.
NO PLACE FOR BIDEN TO HIDE IN THE NEXT DEBATE
Sanders’ next opportunity to attack Biden and his record will be in a March 15 nationally televised debate. Sanders and Biden will be the only candidates on that stage, and there will be nowhere to hide. If Biden has a weak debate performance, like several earlier in the campaign, it could reignite the questions about his competency which almost derailed his candidacy before the South Carolina primary.
Even after he found his stride in South Carolina in the last few days before the primary, the basics of the Biden campaign didn’t change. His staff was careful to preserve the strength of their 77-year-old candidate by limiting his schedule to only a few events each day. He made new verbal gaffes, renewing more doubts about whether he can maintain a coherent presentation of his policies throughout the next seven months of campaigning.
Rebecca Katz, a Democrat progressive strategist who is not affiliated with any campaign, observed, “Biden has run for president three times. In all of those campaigns, there were only three days where he overperformed—they just so happened to be the three days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday. I am not saying Biden won’t have more good days. I’m saying, let’s just all take a deep breath as we look ahead to the hard work of the next several months.”
SANDERS NEEDS A MAJOR COMEBACK
With the entire Democrat establishment now united in support of Biden, Sanders will need to stage a major comeback to secure the clear majority of 1,991 pledged convention delegates he will need to wrap up the party’s nomination before the Milwaukee national convention.
Sanders’ path to the nomination is very narrow. He will have to “run the table,” running most of the remaining primaries by significant margins to overtake Biden in the delegate count and prevent him from wrapping up the nomination before the convention.
Even if Sanders achieves that goal, the several hundred unelected superdelegates, representing the Democrat party establishment, could give Biden the nomination after the first round of voting on the floor of the convention. Such an outcome would infuriate Sanders’ supporters, and threaten to divide rather than unite the party going into the general election.
Many Democrats believe that Sanders supporters, angry with the party for rigging the primaries against him in 2016, stayed home on Election Day or voted for the Green Party nominee, providing Donald Trump with his narrow but decisive margin of victory in the Rust Belt states. They also fear that if Sanders supporters are unhappy with the convention results again this year, history could repeat itself in November, giving Trump a second term.
BIDEN STILL HAS HIS FAULTS AND WEAKNESSES
Despite their decision to unify in support of Biden, the assessment by the party establishment of Biden’s qualities and potential to defeat Donald Trump’s bid for re-election in November did not suddenly improve before the South Carolina primary.
Biden had represented Delaware in the US Senate for more than 30 years when Barack Obama picked him as his 2008 vice presidential running mate. Biden had folded his second presidential campaign in January of that year after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, far behind Obama and Hillary Clinton. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign was short circuited by media revelations that he had plagiarized passages from his speeches from different sources without attribution, including British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Hubert Humphrey.
Biden was always likable and popular. The voters of Delaware elected Biden to the Senate seven times, always against relatively light opposition. During his three decades in the Senate, he was a longtime member of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committee.
Biden developed a reputation for making careless and embarrassing off-the-cuff remarks, which continued during his years as Barack Obama’s vice president. But because Biden had so many friends on both sides of the political aisle in Washington and in the mainstream media, they were casually dismissed as harmless eccentricities.
SYMPATHY FOR BIDEN WON’T PROTECT HIM ANYMORE
Biden was an object of sympathy because of the tragedies he suffered during his life. As a newly elected Delaware senator in 1972, Biden suffered the death of his wife and baby daughter in a traffic accident, and was left to raise his two surviving young sons as a single father. In 1988, Biden suffered two near-fatal brain aneurysms, forcing him to take a seven-month leave of absence from the Senate while he made a full recovery from a pair of operations to repair the damage.
Biden also suffered during his second term as Obama’ vice president while his son, Beau Biden, who served as the popular attorney general for the state of Delaware, fought a losing battle against brain cancer. After Beau died in May 2015, the elder Biden’s assumption of personal responsibility for his son’s family and his grief weighed heavily upon him. He cited them as a key factor in his decision not to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democrat presidential nomination, saying, “nobody has a right … to seek that office unless they’re willing to give it 110% of who they are.”
These are some of the reasons why Biden had been immune, until the current presidential campaign cycle, from the kind of close scrutiny of his gaffes and questionable inside deals benefitting members of his family which would have destroyed the careers of most other Washington politicians.
BIDEN TOOK OFF THE GLOVES
Writing in The Atlantic, Edward-Isaac Dovere said that the first step in the Biden campaign’s turnaround was the success of his staff in persuading him to be tougher in criticizing his Democrat rivals after his deeply disappointing finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. It was not easy for them to convince the genuinely friendly and amiable Biden to go negative, even though the survival of his campaign depended upon it. Biden’s team also had to figure out how it could redirect, in specific, targeted ways, the message of their veteran candidate whom they knew prefers to say whatever is on his mind at the moment, whether he should or not, and who doesn’t take direction particularly well.
After his fourth-place finish in Iowa, Biden began to go after Bernie Sanders, criticizing his support for socialism every chance he got. Eventually, he also began attacking Pete Buttigieg – even though Biden said that he had come to see shades of his late son Beau in the young man – after his closest aides explained to him that he had to, because Buttigieg was his main rival for the votes of moderate Democrats.
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, recalled the conversation she had with Biden in which he finally decided to release an anti-Buttigieg video. “He did not love taking it at Pete, whom he likes and respects. But he also understood and knew it was necessary to interrupt the narrative and shift some of the dynamic in the race, which he knew desperately needed to happen,” she said.
The Biden campaign was broke. He had raised less money than his other main rivals – Sanders, Warren and even Klobuchar – over the previous year. There was no money to pay for ad campaigns or internal polling, leaving Biden’s campaign team reliant on publicly available poll numbers to get a feel for his performance and plot their strategy.
BIDEN’S LAST STAND IN SOUTH CAROLINA
Once it became clear that Biden’s showing in the New Hampshire primary would be a disaster, the campaign denied media reports that he planned to leave the state the morning of the primary – while he did just that, rushing to South Carolina where he was about to make his last stand.
At the same time, his campaign began to promote the message that Biden’s poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire did not mean much because neither state had many of the minority voters who make up much of the grassroots base of the party. They argued that the large number of older black voters in the South, who formed the backbone of Biden’s support because of his close association with President Obama, hadn’t yet had an opportunity to express their preferences.
Biden’s ability to come in a distant second to Sanders in the Nevada caucuses, but still ahead of Buttigieg, supported his claim to be the leading moderate in the race, and kept his candidacy barely alive heading into South Carolina a week later.
Biden also stepped up his rhetoric against Sanders’ plan to do away with Obamacare and force more than 140 million Americans off their current private health care plans and pushing the need for much stronger gun control regulation. Most important, Biden urged his campaign team to emphasize his close association with President Obama, while carrying out his policies for eight years as vice president. “This guy’s not a Barack Obama!” Biden said of Buttigieg. Biden also recalled repeatedly that Sanders had wanted to subject President Obama to a primary challenge from the left when he ran for a second term as president in 2012.
DEMOCRAT SUPPORT FOR OBAMA CONTRASTS WITH REPUBLICANS
This highlights a crucial difference between Donald Trump’s success as an outsider in defeating the GOP establishment and taking over the party during the 2016 campaign, and Bernie Sanders’ effort this year to do much the same thing to the Democrats. As liberal political analyst Peter Beinart points out, by 2016, the conservative grassroots of the Republican party was furious and frustrated with the elected party leadership who had repeatedly failed to carry out the conservative policy agenda once they gained power in Washington.
Conservative talk radio hosts railed against post-Reagan Republican presidents for picking new justices to fill vacancies on the US Supreme Court whom they claimed were conservatives but who often voted in support of liberal legal goals once they were on the bench. These same Republican presidents and GOP congressional leaders infuriated fiscal conservatives for failing to bring federal spending under control, driving up the deficit, and permitting the continued growth in the size and power of the federal bureaucracy. While paying lip service to conservative political and economic principles, many of the elected Republicans in Washington, who were condemned in the conservative radio talk show world as “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only), enabled the Democrats to continue to control federal policy.
When grassroots Republican voters tried to install reliable conservatives as new party leaders, their efforts were constantly frustrated by the entrenched GOP Washington establishment. This was particularly true during GOP presidential nominating campaigns every four years.
WHY THE COMPARISON OF BIDEN TO TRUMP IN 2016 DOESN’T WORK
For example, in 2012, the party establishment rejected several promising conservative candidates, including former House GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and gave the nomination to the moderate former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. He had actually introduced an early version of Obamacare in his state, hobbling his ability to effectively press one of the main Republican complaints against Obama in the 2012 general election campaign.
In the 2016 presidential election cycle, the early favorite of the GOP establishment was Florida Governor Jeb Bush, another moderate who was pushing the compromised policies and liberal accommodations that his father and brother had pushed when they were president. That made it relatively easy for Trump to push Bush aside and ignite the pent-up enthusiasm and frustration of GOP grassroots voters by offering them the conservative policies they had long wanted from their leaders.
But in the case of the mainstream Democrats, as represented by the black voters of South Carolina, they were satisfied with the incremental liberal advances achieved by President Obama during his two terms as president, and would have been happy with a presidential candidate who would have continued to lead the country in that direction.
Many Democrats were uncomfortable with their party establishment’s decision to rig its own primary selection system in favor of Hillary Clinton, both because of the inherent corruption in both the process and the candidate, and the correct perception that Mrs. Clinton’s administration would have been a throwback to the obsolete, centrist “New Democrat” policies of her husband’s presidency 20 years earlier.
REPUBLICANS DON’T TRUST THEIR PARTY LEADERS WHILE DEMOCRATS DO
Beinart, also writing in The Atlantic, asks the key question: “Why did embracing his party’s establishment work for Biden but not for [Jeb] Bush? Because Democrats like their establishment more. Although progressive activists criticize Obama, his approval rating among Democrats as a whole – according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average – is almost 87 percent. That makes Biden’s association with him an almost unmitigated political strength. By contrast, an internal [Jeb] Bush campaign poll showed that Jeb’s family connections turned many [GOP] voters off.
“Obama isn’t just personally more popular among Democrats than George W. Bush was among Republicans. His agenda is more popular too. Eighty-five percent of Democrats approve of Obamacare. By contrast, a May 2015 poll found that only 54 percent of Republicans believed that the Bush administration’s signature initiative – the Iraq War – had been worth fighting.”
That is why Sanders has never directly attacked Obama’s policies, even though he talks about radically expanding Obama’s liberal policy initiatives. By contrast, the secret of Trump’s 2016 success with mainstream GOP voters was his willingness to make the centerpiece of his campaign an attack on the support of the GOP policy establishment for liberalized immigration policies.
The key to Biden’s amazing success in the South Carolina primary and on Super Tuesday was based on his ability to convince Democrat voters that he really did represent a continuation of Barack Obama’s popular policies and liberal attitudes. He began to emotionally feed off the enthusiasm of the largely African-American participants in his South Carolina rallies which was notably absent in the sparse crowds of white Democrats who showed up to his campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire.
By the morning of the South Carolina primary, Biden and his staff were confident that they’d win, despite the public opinion polls which were predicting a tight race, but they had no idea whether that win would be big enough to enable them to catch up Sanders. But it was, and the well-timed endorsement of Congressman Jim Clyburn had been key, because it earned Biden the kind of positive media attention that his campaign badly needed but couldn’t afford to buy.
BIDEN BECOMES THE NEW “COMEBACK KID”
The turnaround in South Carolina instantly became Biden’s new campaign theme, as reflected by the opening line of his victory speech that night: “To all those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind: This is your campaign.” After Biden won South Carolina, his campaign was on a roll. As Biden’s two main moderate competitors dropped out of the race and endorsed him, Biden’s campaign raised more money in the next three days before Super Tuesday than it had in the entire third quarter of 2019. As the Super Tuesday voting started, Biden’s dramatic comeback dominated the national political news coverage.
Despite his newfound popularity with the party establishment and media pundits, the goodwill and respect that Joe Biden has accumulated during his past 40 years of government service will not shield him as he battles Bernie Sanders over the next four months for the Democrat nomination, nor will it help him in a no-holds-barred campaign against Donald Trump running for re-election in November.
The accusations of conflict of interest and corruption lodged against then-Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, regarding Hunter’s position on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian energy company, have already been widely publicized. They were an integral part of Trump’s defense against the impeachment case which House Democrats made against him, based upon a phone conversation with the newly elected president of Ukraine in which Trump asked him to investigate the Bidens.
BIDEN’S LONG SENATE RECORD IS A MIXED BLESSING
Biden’s long Senate voting record will serve as a rich resource that Sanders and Trump will be able to mine during the months ahead to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in Biden’s current, more liberal policy proposals. Sanders has already begun attacking Biden’s votes to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in favor of the flawed 1993 NAFTA free trade deal, the Hyde Amendment and the tough 1994 federal crime prevention bill which resulted in the imprisonment of many American black youth for drug abuse.
The morning after Super Tuesday, Sanders launched the next phase of his campaign by asking voters, “Which side are you on?” He told reporters at his Vermont campaign headquarters that Biden is beholden to billionaire donors, and questioned whether a candidate backed by the “corporate world” would bring about changes working families “desperately need. The American people have got to understand that this is a conflict about ideas, about a record, about a vision for where we go forward.” But he also admitted that his own campaign was not “as successful as I would hope in bringing young people” out to vote, explaining his Super Tuesday losses.
The Sanders campaign released a series of new ads which criticized Biden’s record on Social Security and trade and highlighted a 2016 video in which then-President Obama praised Sanders.
SANDERS DECLARES WAR ON THE DEMOCRAT ESTABLISHMENT
Sanders said that Michael Bloomberg’s decision to drop out of the race and endorse Biden was motivated by the nervousness of the political and corporate establishments about his own candidacy and its desire to “stop Bernie Sanders” and a “movement of working people and low-income people. . . I suspect we will see a lot of money coming into Biden’s campaign, probably a lot of negative ads attacking me.”
In a Sunday interview with NBC, Sanders blamed his loss in three states on Super Tuesday on the decision by Klobuchar and Buttigieg to drop out and endorse Biden.
“The establishment put a great deal of pressure on Pete Buttigieg, on Amy Klobuchar, who ran really aggressive campaigns. Well, I know both of them. They work really, really hard. But suddenly, right before Super Tuesday, they announced their withdrawal,” Sanders said.
“If they had not withdrawn from the race before Super Tuesday, which is kind of a surprise to a lot of people, I suspect we would have won in Minnesota, we would have won in Maine, we would have won in Massachusetts.”
During an ABC News interview, Sanders said Biden failed to “cast difficult votes” when he was a senator representing Delaware. “What I’m saying here is that people want somebody who has a history of standing up and making the tough decisions in tough times.”
SANDERS AVOIDING DIRECT ATTACKS ON OBAMA AND BIDEN
But Sanders was also careful to avoid making any personal attacks against his opponent, declaring, “Joe Biden is a friend of mine. Joe Biden is a decent guy, what Joe has said is if I win the nomination that he’ll be there for me, and what I have said is if he wins the nomination, I’ll be there for him.” Sanders explained that he did not want the primary campaign to sink to Donald Trump’s level.
Biden has already allowed the progressive Democrat activists behind Sanders and Warren to push his positions far to the left of those he supported, first as a senator, and then as a member of the Obama administration. He has endorsed the addition of a “public option” which could eventually displace all current Obamacare-compliant private insurance plans. He has endorsed the sweeping goals of the Green New Deal aiming to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels, potentially destroying the nation’s energy independence, and the millions of good-paying American jobs it provides. He supports the radical gun control proposals of Beto O’Rourke, and the so-called progressive Democrat social agenda, threatening the traditional American family, moral and cultural values that Biden still likes to talk about.
Given the harsh reality of his actual positions on these issues, it is difficult to see how Biden could lead the Democrats back to victory in November by winning over the white, working class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. They used to vote for Democrats until they realized they had been betrayed, and then provided Trump with his margin of victory in 2016.
Biden is suddenly once again the Democrat frontrunner, and his path to the nomination is clear, but his ability to stand up to Donald Trump and defeat him in the general election remains in doubt.