A day after a dramatic Super Tuesday redefined the contours of the Democratic presidential race, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders girded for a months-long fight that could rend the party along ideological lines and even remain unresolved when the nominating convention meets in July.
The surging moderate Mr. Biden, whose campaign was flailing just days ago, assembled a coalition of African-Americans, older people, suburbanites and last-minute voters to arrest the momentum of the leftist Mr. Sanders, who last week had been the front-runner for the nomination.
And on Wednesday Mr. Biden further consolidated the party’s centrists as Michael Bloomberg quit the race and endorsed him – becoming the fourth ex-candidate in as many days to throw their support behind the former vice-president. The billionaire founder of Bloomberg LP could even bring his personal fortune and vast organizing network to bear for Mr. Biden.
Progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, took time to reassess her campaign after placing third in her home state of Massachusetts.
Anticipating the increased acrimony that the two-person contest could face, particularly given the online vitriol for which some of Mr. Sanders’s most ardent supporters are known, Mr. Biden appealed for civility.
“What we can’t let happen in the next few weeks is let this primary turn into a campaign of negative attacks. The only thing that can do is help Donald Trump,” he said in Los Angeles, where he was attending a fundraiser.
Mr. Sanders held onto his youthful base and edged the competition among Latinos; a sign that his heavy investment in outreach to Spanish-speaking voters was working.
But he struggled to grow beyond his core support and, in some cases, posted worse results than in his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. And turnout among young voters was low, undermining Mr. Sanders’s main argument about his own electability: That his calls for revolutionary change will motivate people who do not usually vote to come to the polls and defeat Mr. Trump.
Mr. Sanders’s campaign had gone into Super Tuesday hoping to amass an insurmountable lead in delegates. Instead, it had to settle for a result roughly equal to or slightly less than Mr. Biden’s.
“Of course I’m disappointed. I would like to win every state by a landslide. It’s not going to happen,” Mr. Sanders told reporters in Burlington, Vt. “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in? And the answer is no.”
A defiant Mr. Sanders accused Mr. Biden of being in the pocket of wealthy corporate interests and railed against the media for its coverage of his campaign, but said he was still confident “we’re going to win this thing.”
Voter turnout over all was up for the primaries – good news for a party that is counting on a fired-up base, along with independent voters and moderate Republicans fed up with Mr. Trump, to deliver victory in November.
Now, either Mr. Biden or Mr. Sanders must find a way to rack up larger margins of victory in the next series of contests. Because delegates are awarded proportionally, their many narrow wins Tuesday mean that they remain relatively close in the count: 566 delegates pledged to Mr. Biden and 501 to Mr. Sanders. Without bigger winning margins, it will be hard for either to pull away and reach the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination and avoid a contested convention.
While Mr. Sanders finished first in California, largely by winning nearly half of the state’s Latino vote, his 34-per-cent margin means that he will have to share its convention delegation with Mr. Biden. Mr. Sanders actually won a smaller vote share than in 2016, when he lost the state but captured 46 per cent of the vote. It was a similar story in Texas, where Mr. Sanders’s 30-per-cent showing was down three points from 2016. Such totals suggested a difficulty to grow beyond his core vote.
On the plus side for Mr. Sanders, Latinos are a key Democratic demographic, favouring the party but voting in lower proportions than white or black voters, suggesting an under-mobilized source of support. Mr. Sanders also won Colorado, Utah and Vermont.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, faces hurdles of his own. His debate performances have been uninspiring, his stump speeches uneven and gaffe-prone: In his victory speech Tuesday, for instance, he at one point mixed up his wife and his sister. He also has a shakier organization than does Mr. Sanders, who benefits from a small army of volunteers who flood into key states to get out the vote for him.
He may, however, soon be getting an assist from Mr. Bloomberg. The billionaire poured US$500-million into the race, mostly on television ads and a large organization of paid field staff, but came first nowhere but American Samoa. He vowed on Wednesday to put that infrastructure to work to defeat Mr. Trump.
“I entered the race for president to defeat Donald Trump, and today I am leaving the race for the same reason: To defeat Donald Trump, because staying in would make it more difficult,” he told campaign staff at a hotel in New York.
Mr. Biden’s voting coalition also offered reason for him to hope. Black voters are the Democrats’ most loyal demographic, voting 90 per cent in favour of the party in some cases, and turning them out to the polls will be key to both the nomination and the general election. Suburbanites, meanwhile, tipped the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018.
African-Americans gave Mr. Biden a victory in Texas, a three-way contest where Mr. Bloomberg ate into Mr. Sanders’s Latino support. And they delivered a southern sweep for the former vice-president, who took North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. Mr. Biden further took Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Maine.
Exit polling for the Associated Press in Virginia showed that nearly half of voters made up their minds shortly before primary day and two-thirds of them went for Mr. Biden. This suggests that his blowout win in South Carolina last weekend, which prompted other moderate candidates to quit the race and a stampede of endorsements, gave Mr. Biden a momentum that sealed his victories Tuesday.
Next week, the contest moves to states including Michigan, which Mr. Sanders won in 2016 but where Mr. Biden now leads polls, Missouri and Mississippi. At his news conference, Mr. Sanders blasted Mr. Biden for supporting the original North American free-trade agreement in the 1990s. He described the deal as “disastrous” and said the people of Michigan were “devastated” by the pact, which made it easier to outsource the auto industry to Mexico.
After that are Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona on March 17. Mr. Sanders leads polls in Ohio, and will be banking on his Latino support in Arizona. He is behind in the polls in Florida, which he lost in 2016, and where his comments praising Fidel Castro’s social programs will damage him with the Cuban exile community.
Other large states do not vote until late in the process, with New York and Pennsylvania on April 28 and New Jersey June 2, raising the prospect of a protracted fight.
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