FALLS CHURCH, VA.—The Democratic Primary now appears to be a race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, as Biden swept the southern states voting on Super Tuesday primary day, won some delegates in Sanders’ home state of Vermont, and was trading the lead with Sanders in early returns from delegate-rich Texas.
His comeback to front-runner status that began in South Carolina on Saturday is complete after voters decided — many at the last minute — to come to his side.
Deborah Litman made up her mind standing in the voting booth in Falls Church.
“My favourite candidate was actually Elizabeth Warren, but I voted for Biden because I think he has the best shot to beat Trump. And I think that’s the most important thing,” she said.
Standing with her son outside the local elementary school, she said they belong to a “two-mom” family and she didn’t think Donald Trump liked families like theirs, that she is a scientist and Trump fights science, that she didn’t like his wall and all it stood for.
“He’s just a disgusting human being,” she said.
And so while her heart remained with Warren, she’d today become convinced Biden was the guy to take on Trump.
It was a common sentiment at two polling stations in Fairfax County, Va., in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — an overwhelming majority of the voters I spoke with supporting Biden, and having decided to vote for him within the past few days.
I heard from two Pete Buttigieg supporters who followed their candidate’s endorsement, one talking about how the “centrist wing of the party” was coalescing. I heard from multiple people worried Sanders’s socialism wouldn’t sell in the general election. All of the voters I spoke with said they would support the Democratic nominee, whoever it was, in November.
Alexandra Bowes, a lifelong Republican in Langley who voted Libertarian in 2016, had just cast a vote for a Democrat for the first time in her life. “I really watched the polls to see what was trending and then picked the candidate that I felt had the strongest chance of winning the delegates to beat Trump.”
That was the story across Virginia, which Biden won in a landslide by 30 per cent of the vote, and many Super Tuesday primary states, completing one of the most astonishing political turnaround weeks in memory. Biden also won Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Arkansas and appeared likely to win Massachusetts.
“It’s a good night, and it seems to be getting even better. They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing,” Biden told his supporters Tuesday night. “I’m here to report we are very much alive. Make no mistake about it, this campaign will send Donald Trump packing. This campaign is taking off. People are talking about a revolution, we’ve started a movement, we’ve increased turnout that can turn out for us,” he said, possibly in reference to a turnout in Virginia that was reported to be double that of 2016.
A week ago, his campaign seemed to be on the verge of collapsing and Sanders, the Vermont senator, poised to lock up the nomination. Now, after a convincing Biden win in South Carolina and endorsements by his former opponents Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke on Monday, he saw his poll numbers climb 10 or more points within a matter of days.
After the 14 states that voted Tuesday, it is clearly a two-horse race between Biden and Sanders.
The full results of the largest state primary held Tuesday won’t be known for days or weeks, as voters in California cast votes by mail that get counted as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday. Sanders has long been expected to win there, which will likely help him maintain his competitive position in the delegate race with Biden. Sanders won his home state of Vermont and Colorado, and appeared likely to win Utah.
“We are not only taking on the corporate establishment, we are also taking on the political establishment. But we are going to win because the people understand it is our movement that’s best positioned to beat Trump,” Sanders said in a lively speech to a Vermont rally. He went on to criticize Biden’s past senate votes on the Iraq War, trade agreements, and social program cuts. “You cannot beat Trump with the same-old same-old kind of politics.”
By late Tuesday, it was too early to see clear results California, while Maine was too close to determine a clear leader.
The votes of Americans living in Canada and around the world who participated in the Democrats Abroad primary beginning Tuesday also won’t be counted until online voting for them closes in a week.
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Mike Bloomberg, the ninth-richest man in the country and former mayor of New York, washed out in what was supposed to be his big debut in the nomination contest. He skipped the four earliest states while spending unprecedented amounts of money campaigning in Super Tuesday states and across the country, betting that an unsettled race at this point would leave him room to parachute in as the moderate alternative.
He did garner some support. Sebastian Harvery, 17, was casting his first-ever vote, and marked Bloomberg on his ballot. “He’s one of the only people I think who can actually beat Trump,” he said. “Biden has some decent views, but I think you can’t put him up on a debate stage against Trump. And Bernie and Warren, for me, are a little too far left.”
Bloomberg won the caucus in American Samoa, where six delegates were at stake (Tulsi Gabbard placed second there, and won her first delegate). And based on early returns, it seemed Bloomberg might get some delegates in other states such as Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
But after $500 million (U.S.) spent, a poor debate performance two weeks ago and a dominating Biden victory in South Carolina seemed to consolidate the field somewhat, Bloomberg was mostly left on the sidelines. He said throughout the day Tuesday he’d fight on for the possibility of becoming a consensus choice at a contested convention.
That’s also been Warren’s strategy — she has played the role of Bloomberg’s political assassin in debates. She was in a tight three-way race in her home state of Massachusetts based on early returns, but didn’t reach the viability threshold to receive delegates in many other places.
What seems most likely now is that Biden and Sanders fight it out through the coming primary schedule — there are still 2,473 pledged delegates to be won, well over half of the total delegates, in what has been characterized as a fight for the soul of the party.
Sanders has built, since his second-place run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, a youthful movement of energetic and often antagonizing supporters ready for a “political revolution” based on his “democratic socialism.” They are a fundraising powerhouse based on small repeated donations, and they refer to the establishment of their own party as corrupt. Many of them refuse to say they’ll vote for any other Democrat in the general election and seem likely to view any kind of defeat of Sanders as a robbery of the primary by lobbyists and party fixers.
Biden, likely the most experienced candidate in the race, has pitched himself as an unthreatening return to politics as usual — what he recalls as a more civil time in political history — offering his own empathy and charm as a way to beat Trump and make gradual progress on progressive goals by bringing centrist independents and alienated Republicans onside rather than alienating them with calls for socialism.
Both candidates come with significant downsides: Biden has not demonstrated any organizational strength until the past few days, and often seems unfocused and lost in his debates and speeches. His appeal can seem disjointed, and he represents to many an endorsement of the status quo both Sanders and Trump voters thoroughly reject. Sanders, meanwhile, embraces a socialist label that is very unpopular in the U.S., and often embraces divisive soak-the-rich rhetoric that turns off many centrists who aren’t interested in class warfare. Political pundits warn Trump will have a field day with Sanders’ past admiration for elements of Communist policy in the Soviet Union (where he honeymooned) and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Both men, of course, are older than Trump, and age may be a factor. Sanders had a heart attack within the past few months, while Biden seems to have lost some of his mental edge in public appearances from his years as a senator and vice-president.
They appear, after the Super Tuesday votes, to be the choices available to the party. Sanders at 78 promising with his young following to bring about the politics of the future. Biden at 77, offering a restoration of the politics of the recent past.
For many Democratic voters, the priority is beating Donald Trump, and the decision now is which of those two options offers the best way to do it.