It worked. Joe Biden used his resounding South Carolina primary victory on Saturday night to quickly knock out—and earn the endorsements of—two rivals, coalescing the other center-left candidates around his candidacy just in time for Super Tuesday. Center-left voters wary of a Sanders nomination followed the cues with a militarylike precision. Were it not for the millions of early ballots cast—which look nothing like the ballots cast on Election Day—Biden might have taken Super Tuesday with ease.
We do not know who will ultimately win the Democratic presidential nomination, and we won’t even know the final delegate tally of Super Tuesday, given the uncertainty of California, for some time. Sixty percent of pledged delegates are still outstanding. But what we saw on Super Tuesday, at least, was the Democratic Party falling in line. It was the stuff that party leaders dream of.
The Biden surge following South Carolina—after he’d finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and a distant second in Nevada—is unprecedented. Virginia, where there was relatively little early voting, is a good test case. Just a couple of weeks ago, the scant Virginia polling showed Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Michael Bloomberg together in a close race. On Election Day, Biden won 53 percent of the vote, 30 percentage points better than Sanders and 43 ahead of Bloomberg. The margins held up strongly across the state, and turnout increased about 600,000 votes from 2016. North Carolina is a similar state, with a similar three-way contest, that did have a good number of early voters. The early vote was close, but as the Election Day returns came in, Biden’s percentage crept comfortably into the low 40s for another big win.
Those wins, if not those margins, weren’t terrible surprises going into the day. Nor were wins, if not the margins, in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arkansas. Two other wins, though, were complete shocks. Biden won Minnesota, considered a toss-up between Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders all the way back on Monday morning. He also won Massachusetts, a state home to one senator in the race and bordering the home state of another’s. That race, as of Tuesday night, was considered a toss-up between those other local senators, Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. Biden, as of this writing, is holding onto a narrow lead in Maine. He didn’t campaign, or advertise, or organize, in any meaningful way or in no way at all, in many of these states. Super Tuesday was as bad a night for “campaigning” as it was a good night for the value of earned media.
Sanders clung onto victories in Colorado, Utah, and Vermont, states that offered about the same number of delegates combined as North Carolina alone. He won his safest state of the evening, Vermont, with 51 percent of the vote, less than Joe Biden won in Virginia. And while only Biden and Sanders earned enough support statewide to win delegates in Virginia and North Carolina, four candidates—Biden, Sanders, Bloomberg, and Warren—are expected to get statewide delegates out of Colorado. As of this writing, Biden had narrowly taken a lead in Texas, with many more day-of votes remaining to count.
If what transpired between Saturday night and Tuesday night sounds familiar, you may be remembering it from four years ago, when it was the Republican establishment’s unfulfilled fantasy.
After Donald Trump went on an early-state run with victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, establishment Republicans hoped to consolidate the anti-Trump vote into a single candidate who would then waltz to head-to-head victories against the guy threatening to hijack their party. The vote didn’t consolidate by Super Tuesday, though, with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each taking significant shares of the vote. Rubio wouldn’t drop out for another two weeks, until he’d lost his home state of Florida. After that, Cruz split votes with a stubborn John Kasich—but by that point, it didn’t matter. Trump had kept expanding his base of support, winning pluralities and clean majorities in the biggest states.
Anti-Sanders Democrats had begun to worry about this exact scenario after Sanders’ Nevada win, and for the past few weeks their fear had been that Sanders would build an insurmountable delegate lead against a split field by Super Tuesday. So they did something about it. Black voters in South Carolina sent Biden the dominating win he needed to breathe life into his campaign. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar rushed to get out of his way. Endorsements came in. Suburban voters, many of whom have voted Republican in the past, and may have distinct memories of an outsider taking over their party, took the new information and voted tactically. This strategy amounted to half-baked pundit mumbling—and it worked!
If the sunny trends continue for Biden, it will officially be time to retire a phrase that ably described presidential politics for a while: “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.” Republican voters gave their nomination to “the next guy in line” for a half-century until 2016, when they went against all the screaming from the top of their party and gave it to the last guy in line. Democrats, meanwhile, have been known in the past to follow their hearts to a McGovern, a Carter, a Dukakis, or an Obama. But on Super Tuesday, just when they looked like they might follow their hearts enough to give Sanders a dominating lead, they pulled off one of the most agile operations you’ll ever see to fall in line behind a mainstream alternative.