The point of Super Tuesday – which, as is usual in Australia, took place yesterday, a Wednesday – is to stop the results of the nominating contest being distorted too much by the states that vote early, and instead give a bunch of large, reasonably representative states a decisive say. It doesn’t always work, but this time it looks as if it did.
As no doubt you’ve heard, it was a triumph for Joe Biden. He won ten of the 14 states that voted, most of them by substantial margins, including a narrow win in Texas, the second-largest of them (Maine was the only other one that was close). His rival, Bernie Sanders, won the other four; no-one else got into the top two anywhere.*
Sanders won the biggest state, California, but even there he was less than fully convincing. With about 7% of precincts still to come in, he leads Biden by about nine points, 33.8% to 25.1% – far from the landslide that the polls had predicted.
Mike Bloomberg, who managed nine third-place finishes and five fourths (his best was Colorado, with 20.5%), has now withdrawn and endorsed Biden. That leaves Elizabeth Warren (who had five thirds and nine fourths, including an embarrassing third in her own state of Massachusetts) as the only other serious contender still in the running.
So from a crowded field that looked a lot like the Republican race of 2016, the contest has suddenly come to look very like the Democrat race of that year: a centrist, establishment candidate facing off against (and favored to beat) Bernie Sanders, the candidate of the “revolution”.
In 2016 that contest dragged on for another month and a half from this point, possibly doing the party a great deal of damage in the process. Even after it ended, many of Sanders’s supporters (although not Sanders himself) were lukewarm at best about endorsing Hillary Clinton in the general election.
Could Biden, assuming he is the nominee, be damaged in the same way? He could, but there are at least two big differences from 2016.
Firstly, Sanders is four years older and grumpier than he was then. He has lost his novelty value and failed to broaden his support. While his base is as committed as ever, he has less capacity this time to sweep up Democrats from the middle ground.
Second, and probably more importantly, Democrats in 2016 were confident of victory: they thought they could afford the luxury of taking their time to settle on a candidate. This year, facing an incumbent Donald Trump, they are desperate and determined. They care first and foremost about getting someone who can win.
(I say “at least two”: some would say there is a third difference, namely that Clinton, due to her gender or her personal history, had particular strong negatives that Biden lacks. But I remain agnostic on that point.)
So unless something changes fairly soon, the party looks like settling on Biden quite quickly. Another nine states vote in the next two weeks (including four big ones in Michigan, Florida, Illinois and Ohio); Warren is unlikely to stay in that long, but even if she endorses Sanders (which is no certainty) her voters will not all follow her lead.
And a quick victory for Biden will not only be less traumatic in its own right, but it will make it easier for Sanders and his supporters to come on board afterwards. In 2016 things were close enough for them to maintain that the process was rigged and that the party leadership had conspired against them. But if it’s all over by the end of this month, that won’t be an option: it will be obvious that Sanders has lost in a fair fight.
Of course, there could still be further twists in this tale. Biden’s lead in delegates so far is still relatively modest (the Green Papers projects 656 to 584); if he stumbles badly in some fashion, Sanders could resume his front-runner status. But for now the party establishment is breathing much, much easier.
* Except for the territory of American Samoa, which I confess I’m unable to take very seriously. But for the record, it selects (by caucus) six delegates, or about one for every 44 voters. Mike Bloomberg picked up four of them and Tulsi Gabbard two.