How Super Tuesday Was All About Coalitions and Earned Media

The Democratic contest just narrowed down to Biden and Sanders, but big questions still remain.

A remarkable Super Tuesday saw Joe Biden put together a stunning set of victories that would have been almost unthinkable just a week ago. The former vice president appears to have cleared victories in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia. Sanders picked up California, Colorado, Utah, and his home state of Vermont. As of this writing, Biden’s lead in delegates is now 453 to Sanders’s 382.

A few big upshots from the night:

Earned media is king: The Warren and Sanders campaigns invested heavily in field, paying organizers on the ground for months. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer spent ungodly sums on paid TV advertising. Bloomberg in particular spent more than $500 million, an astronomical figure for a primary for the grand prize of American Samoa and a pittance of delegates elsewhere. But all of them lost state after state to a candidate who was dramatically underfunded and had barely put any field boots on the ground. Biden was the beneficiary of a big media boost from his victory in South Carolina and the endorsement of James Clyburn—but most of all, of course, from the exits and endorsements of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. All the canvassers and phonebankers in the world can’t convince voters who are seeing a different reality on TV, the newspapers. and social media; all the paid ads in the world can’t change what people see right in front of them.

Coalitions matter: The Sanders campaign is famously hostile to every “establishment” in the world, from the Democratic establishment to the Republican establishment to the corporate establishment and much else. Many of its supporters on social media are relentlessly aggressive against everyone not already inside their tent. The tension and hostility between the Warren and Sanders campaigns has only been increasing over the last couple of months. Meanwhile, Joe Biden somehow quietly came to terms with Klobuchar and Buttigieg to bring them on board. It’s much easier to build a 50 percent majority when you’re making friends than when you’re making enemies. Nor is it at all clear that supporting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal absolutely requires taking an antagonistic approach to everyone on all sides.

People under 45 and Latinx voters are ready for a very progressive politics: Although a huge portion of the Democratic base shifted to Biden in the last 72 hours, two big constituencies did not: Latinx and voters under 45, both of whom stuck strongly with Sanders (and, to a much lesser extent, Warren). That puts them into conflict with more conservative older voters overall, and older black voters in the South. As millennials cross the 40 barrier and still have no access to the same quality of life their parents did, the big issues—housing, education, climate change and much more—driving the demand for a more radical politics won’t be going away any time soon. Latinx are growing rapidly and crucial to Democratic gains across the country. If Biden becomes the nominee, he will need to convince these groups that he really is capable of delivering on the things that matter to them—something he has not done effectively so far, as Sanders has delivered a much more compelling message for those voters, centered on a class-oriented politics and universal benefits.

The two wings of the Democratic Party were more interested in fighting each other than picking a unity candidate: One of Elizabeth Warren’s biggest rationales for her candidacy was that she could unite the factions of the party: a solid progressive championing anti-Wall Street policy and universal benefits, who nevertheless did not bring the same hostility and baggage toward “normie” Democrats that defines so much of Sanders’s candidacy. But most voters didn’t end up buying in. Especially on healthcare, she sustained heavy attacks from the center (mostly from Buttigieg and Klobuchar), and then from the left from the Sanders camp. Her support on both sides was whittled down as she tried to straddle the divide. Time will tell if Democrats end up regretting that decision, but enough of the voters in the centrist and progressive camps were determined to defeat the other out right that Warren ended up getting boxed out by the warring factions rather than uniting them. Whether Sanders or Biden wins the nomination, there will be a lot of acrimony to resolve. What does Warren do from here? Hard to know. She has a handful of delegates to use as leverage in a contested convention, and she’s a warrior who still believes there is a path and a good reason to remain in the race, at least for now. (Update: Since this piece was published, Warren has dropped out of the race.)

Turnout is up—but mostly in the suburbs, not among youth or rural areas: One of the big theories of victory for Sanders is that he can increase turnout among non-voters, young voters and disaffected working-class groups to overwhelm traditional partisan politics, remake the electorate and make up for any losses among Clinton-Romney suburbanites. There wasn’t a big turnout increase in most of the early contests—but South Carolina and a few Super Tuesday states have (so far) reported big turnout increases. The problem for the Sanders theory is that those big turnout increases have mostly been in states Biden won. And the turnout increases appear to have taken place in the suburbs–the same places Democrats picked up big wins in 2018 and the places the Democratic establishment has been focusing on both to beat Trump and consolidate its realignment. This has implications for the Sanders theory of the general election and even presidential governance, which relies on the notion that a mass upswell of anti-partisan working-class Americans will rise in solidarity to overwhelm the political system and dislodge our current partisan politics. So far, though, the presidential primary is reflecting an even firmer solidification of the suburban realignment we saw in 2018.

Will the campaigns change their arguments of convenience on supporting the plurality delegate winner? At the end of the next-to-last Democratic debate, all the candidates were asked whether they would support the plurality delegate winner to carry the nomination. Sanders said yes. All the other candidates, including Biden, said no. Instead, they argued that they should let the process under the rules. Much hay was made about democratic principles and “stealing the nomination” at the time. But now that Sanders is behind in delegates and Biden ahead, will either camp reverse its stance? It’s a good warning for message teams not to just say whatever advantages them in the moment, and to plan for future possibilities that may not reflect present expectations.

There really is a significant anti-Sanders vote: Sanders has consistently gotten his 25-30 percent of the Democratic vote across state after state, which was often enough to win a plurality against a divided field. But the big question was just how much of that other 70 percent was voting against Sanders, rather than simply temporarily aligning with other candidates. Polling seemed to suggest that Sanders was quite popular with Democrats overall, and often the second choice of the other candidates. But after the consolidation of the more moderate vote behind Biden, and Sanders continuing to get his 30 percent but not more, it’s clear that there really is a more significant anti-Sanders vote than expected. Sanders’s inability to grow his coalition beyond that is its core challenge at the moment. And its culture of aggression against partisanship itself, against establishment power of all kinds (which often just reflects a body of people who managed to get elected by groups of voters who like them!), and the open disrespect for all the other campaigns among the Sanders supporter base certainly doesn’t help.

But Biden’s weaknesses remain: The problem for the centrist wing is that the issues that caused even moderate voters to stray away from Biden toward Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg in the first place never disappeared. Biden’s handsiness, his famous proclivity for gaffes, his fumbling for words on the stump beyond that of a simple speech impediment, his history of votes on bankruptcy, trade, war and much else that is now out of step with not just the Democratic base but also independents—all of these still exist. And, as noted, he will absolutely have to prove to younger and Latinx voters demanding big changes to their lives that he intends to deliver for them. Biden wilted under scrutiny as the frontrunner months before, and that scrutiny will now return again.

Super Tuesday has given Biden a big advantage and momentum going forward. But the race is still far from over, with big questions on the horizon for both the Sanders and Biden camps.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.