Focus on Michigan

A week after his triumph on Super Tuesday, Joe Biden goes into another round of primaries today (yesterday in the United States) as an overwhelming favorite for the Democrat nomination. This is his opportunity to put the issue beyond dispute.

Six states are voting. Two of them, Mississippi and Missouri, are in the south, which has been Biden’s strongest region; he is most unlikely to be troubled there. Another three are in the west – the one part of the country in which his opponent, Bernie Sanders, has done well – but two of them (Idaho and North Dakota) are so small that they will have very little impact.

The third western state is Washington, which is classic Sanders country. He won it by 45 points in 2016, although then it was a caucus rather than a primary. If he can’t win there (and both the polls and the betting odds are now against him), it’s probably time to pack up and go home.

But the most interesting race is Michigan: the largest of the six, and a state widely regarded as a must-win for the Democrats in November. It was Sanders’s big upset win in 2016, when he narrowly beat Hillary Clinton, 49.7% to 48.3%, despite trailing by large margins in the polls beforehand.

Can he do it again? The punters don’t think so, with Sportsbet quoting his chances at 9-1 against. And polling in the last week has turned seriously bad for him – although the problem is that that’s what it said in 2016 as well, in what Steve Shepard at Politico describes as “one of the most significant polling failures in modern politics.”

Biden’s lead so far in terms of delegates is far from insuperable. The Green Papers estimates it at 696 to 614 (numbers are not final because counting is still unfinished in some of the Super Tuesday states). But with no winner-take-all contests, recovery from behind is harder than it looks. If he’s to stay alive, Sanders needs some big wins, and soon.

Conversely, if Biden can post a big win in Michigan – say, by twenty points or more – and particularly if he can win Washington as well, then his nomination will look inevitable. And the key point about this year’s race is that Democrat voters are looking above all else to settle quickly on an electable candidate. Inevitability will count for far more than it did in 2016.

Not everyone believed me back in January when I said that “it’s more likely than not that Super Tuesday will put the issue beyond serious doubt. If it doesn’t, three big primaries a fortnight later (Florida, Illinois and Ohio) probably will.” But at this stage the chance of Sanders surviving beyond those big three (plus Arizona) on 17 March looks slim.

Results should start coming in in about an hour and a half’s time: polls close in four of the six states at 11am, eastern Australian time. Idaho will be two hours later, at 1pm, followed by Washington at 2pm

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