POLITICS

The Most Important Day Of The Democratic Primary Is Almost Here

On Super Tuesday, more than 1,500 delegates are up for grabs. Bernie Sanders is in the strongest position.

Super Tuesday isn’t one election. It’s not even 16 elections, although voters in 14 states, an overseas territory and Democrats who live outside the United States will all cast ballots. It’s actually more than 150 elections: Full states, congressional and state Senate districts, all places where the candidates are racing to get at least the 15% of the vote needed to win delegates. More than 1,500 delegates are up for grabs, nearly 10 times as many as the voters handed out in the four early states.

The sheer number of candidates remaining in the race ― Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are all at least registering a pulse in national polling ― meaning most candidates won’t be eligible to receive delegates in most places, and each campaign will need to intensely study how to best allocate their resources to maximize their delegate hauls.

“A field this large is unlike anything we’ve seen recently,” said Addisu Demissie, a Democratic operative who managed New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. “It quickly becomes a massive puzzle that’s very difficult to solve.”

Every last percentage point matters: If one candidate manages to get 30% of the vote in a district or state, while all of his opponents remain under 15%, he will pick up every delegate available. But if that candidate stays at 30%, and four other candidates manage to break the 15% barrier, the candidate could receive just a third of the available delegates.

That could result in a boon for the candidate with the largest and most loyal group of supporters so far: Sanders, the progressive icon who leads the field in both delegates and national polling and is looking to indisputably establish himself as the favorite for the nomination.

“Bernie will have viability everywhere,” Demissie said. “There will be very few places where he doesn’t hit 15%, and there will be places where he’s the only person to do so.” 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives to speak during a campaign rally in Springfield, Virginia, on S
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives to speak during a campaign rally in Springfield, Virginia, on Saturday.

While Sanders is expected to perform well everywhere, he could dominate in states in the West with significant Latino populations. Sanders’ bond with young people and Mexican Americans helped him run up the score in Nevada, and a similar formula could lead to strong results in California, Colorado and Texas. He’s also hoping to mount successful incursions into the home states of opposing candidates.

Biden, meanwhile, will hope to continue his success with Black voters in the South following a surprisingly dominant performance in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday night. While former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dominance with Southern Black voters was key to her defeat of Sanders in 2016, polling suggests Biden’s advantage over the Vermonter is not expected to be as strong this time around, and his cash-strapped campaign has spent less than $1 million advertising in Super Tuesday states.

Still, his high name identification, ties to Black leaders and communities, and relationship with former President Barack Obama, along with a potential comeback narrative after South Carolina, should put him in a strong position to win in Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and other states of the former Confederacy. A strong performance could cement him as Sanders’ primary establishment rival, and lead to calls for other moderate candidates to exit the race.

(A caveat: All of the public polling referenced in this piece was completed well before Biden’s victory on Saturday, and doesn’t reflect any media momentum or bounce the former vice president gained.)

Bloomberg, the multibillionaire who has not been on the ballot in any of the early states, will face actual voters for the first time on Super Tuesday. His campaign has spent more than $500 million on advertising, and virtually all of that cash has been targeted at voters in these states. Polling has him on the edge of viability almost everywhere, and his campaign has suggested he could triumph in Oklahoma, Arkansas and North Carolina. 

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks at the North Carolina Democratic Party's Blue NC Celebration on Satur
Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks at the North Carolina Democratic Party's Blue NC Celebration on Saturday in Charlotte.

The Warren campaign feels good about its chances in the states with the largest numbers of delegates ― California and Texas ― and about winning delegates in her home states of Oklahoma and Massachusetts, though small shifts could make or break her chances. She’s also receiving one of the most unexpected boosts of the primary, with a well-funded super PAC airing more than $9 million worth of ads in key states to boost a progressive candidate who has long railed against such groups.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar, two moderate candidates who have struggled with voters of color so far in the campaign, look likely to be locked out of the biggest delegate hauls, but will hope their strength with college-educated voters can net them delegates in Colorado, Virginia and Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota. Buttigieg’s campaign, which managed to snag key additional delegates in Iowa by campaigning in rural areas, hopes its smart targeting can help Buttigieg punch above his relatively low poll numbers in some states.

The combined electorate on Tuesday will be far more racially diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, but not as diverse as Nevada or South Carolina. About 62% of voters will be white, according to projections from one presidential campaign, while 16% will be Black and 15% will be Latino. About 45% of the votes will come from urban areas, a much higher percentage than in any early state. And roughly half the electorate will be college-educated.

Here’s a state-by-state breakdown:

The Biggest Prize: California (415 delegates)

California alone awards roughly three times as many delegates as the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined. A full picture of who wins the state’s significant delegate haul ― and the delegate haul from each of its 52 congressional districts ― is likely to take days, if not weeks, to determine because of how long the state usually takes to count every last ballot.

Polling shows Sanders with a clear lead in the Golden State, performing strongly with Latinos, white liberals and Asian American voters. (California is 55% Hispanic and Asian American, according to census data.) That coalition should make him competitive virtually everywhere in the state, including Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Bay Area, and will likely have him win more than 30% of the statewide vote.

The biggest question in California is how many other candidates break the 15% barrier statewide. Warren’s campaign is hopeful she will be the only other candidate to do so ― that’s the picture public polling paints ― but Bloomberg and Biden are also on the verge of breaking through, and whether the delegates are split two ways or three ways could end up being crucial to her hopes. Persist PAC is spending millions in the expensive Los Angeles and San Francisco markets to help her both statewide and in the Orange County suburbs, which contain oodles of the college-educated white liberals who make up her base.

But those voters have also keen on Klobuchar and Buttigieg in other states, and their campaigns will hope they can win at least some California delegates by performing well there.

One barrier for Biden, who plans on hitting all four Sunday morning political talk shows to try to generate momentum after his South Carolina romp: More than 1.5 million voters have already cast their ballots here.

The Second Biggest Prize, But Don’t Tell Them That: Texas (228)

The Lone Star State allocates delegates among its 31 heavily gerrymandered state Senate districts. Public polling has Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg all clearing the 15% threshold, with Warren on the edge of doing so. If all four candidates do well, it could limit the delegate gains for whoever ends up winning statewide.

Texas’ demographics would seem to favor Sanders. In 2016, exit polls showed a third of the electorate was Latino. But while Sanders ran up the score with Latinos in Nevada, operatives warned Texas’ Latino population is more diverse, and that a strong performance with Latinos in urban areas might not mean strong performance in rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Clinton dominated with Latino voters in the state in 2016, but Sanders’ coalition is significantly different four years later.

Texas, like South Carolina, is also a place that could see an influx of Republicans-turned-Democrats voting in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas, places where Democrats won local offices and House seats in 2018. While just 26% of the electorate was made up of white college graduates in 2016, according to exit polls, that number could be much higher in 2020. If so, it has the potential to benefit both Warren and Bloomberg, and potentially give Klobuchar and Buttigieg a chance to claim delegates.

The South: Alabama (52), Arkansas (31), North Carolina (110), Tennessee (64)

This is where Biden’s advantage with Black voters ― and specifically older Black voters and those who live in rural areas ― will matter the most. Black people make up at least 15% of the population in each of these states, and the racial polarization of Southern politics means they will likely make up at least a third of the electorate in each state. But Alabama is likely to have an electorate that matches South Carolina, where a near-majority of the state’s electorate was Black. In 2016 exit polling, 54% of Democratic primary voters were Black.

Sanders was badly beaten in these states in 2016, with Clinton receiving at least twice as many votes in every state except North Carolina, where she won by nearly 14 percentage points. Sanders received just 19% of the vote in Alabama, 30% in Arkansas, and 32% in Tennessee. While the math is significantly different because of the larger field, Sanders’ campaign is confident his standing in the South has improved enough to prevent Biden from beating him by similar margins.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles at supporters during a campaign event at Saint Augus
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles at supporters during a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday. 

And Sanders may receive help from an unexpected source on that front: Bloomberg’s unprecedented advertising blitz and message ― he’s run extensive ads featuring President Barack Obama praising him ― have clearly reached Black voters in these states, potentially limiting Biden’s advantages. Polling has been limited in Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, but polls of North Carolina show the former New York City mayor’s extensive operations in the state have him likely to break the 15% mark there.

The other campaigns will be hunting for specific delegate opportunities: Warren made a stop in Little Rock on Saturday, and Persist PAC is airing digital ads supporting her and targeted at Black voters in all four states. Klobuchar has made multiple stops in Tennessee.

The Newly Blue: Colorado (67), Virginia (99)

Both of these onetime swing states have become more Democratic in recent years as white college-educated voters have turned against Republicans. In both states, however, those voters share control of the Democratic Party with people of color.

In Virginia, there is a balance between white voters and federal workers in Northern Virginia and Black voters in cities like Newport News, Virginia Beach and Richmond. Biden should do well with Black voters, who made up 26% of the primary electorate in 2016, though Bloomberg could eat into his advantage here as in the rest of the South.

The white voters are concentrated in three congressional districts surrounding Washington, D.C., that include some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country. Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg will all hope to do well here, and all three have thrown well-attended rallies in Northern Virginia in recent weeks. But the Sanders campaign sees an advantage in the region’s immigrant populations, and is hoping their strength with Muslim and Asian American voters can lead to surprise victories.

Sanders performed exceedingly well in Colorado’s caucus in 2016, winning 59% of the vote. But like most other caucus states, Colorado switched to a primary for 2020. Public polling shows him with a healthy lead this time around, performing strongly among both the state’s white voters and Latinos, who make up one-fifth of the state’s population. Warren is also expected to break the 15% mark here, and Buttigieg is on the verge of doing so. (Many ballots have already been returned in Colorado, a vote-by-mail state.)

The Home Turf: Maine (24), Massachusetts (91), Minnesota (75), Oklahoma (37), Vermont (16)

There are five states where one candidate or another can claim home-field advantage. Sanders represents Vermont, Warren is from Massachusetts and was born in Oklahoma, and the two can claim joint custody of Maine, another New England state. Klobuchar represents Minnesota.

Sanders is openly targeting both Massachusetts and Minnesota. He’s held two rallies in the Bay State, including a 10,000-person event in Boston on Saturday. On Monday night, he’s headed to the Twin Cities for a rally with the band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Polling indicates both states could see tight contests, and while narrow wins would provide him with little delegate benefit, they would be significant embarrassments for the two female senators.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar campaigns Friday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar campaigns Friday in Nashville, Tennessee.

A loss would directly undercut Klobuchar, whose campaign message is centered on her popularity throughout her home state and who is running low on campaign funds. Persist PAC is airing ads in the Boston media market ― a step the Warren campaign avoided in both her reelection bid in 2018 and during the New Hampshire primary, and Warren rolled out a list of more than a hundred elected officials who endorsed her.

Sanders, who has had more than two decades to woo the fewer than 700,000 voters who live in Vermont, is expected to romp in his home state. But the Buttigieg campaign said in a conference call that it was investing in Vermont, hoping to steal a few of the state’s delegates.

The Surprisingly Liberal: Utah (29)

Utah’s massive Mormon population makes it one of the most reliably Republican and socially conservative states in the country, notwithstanding its distaste for Donald Trump. But its Democratic primary electorate can be staunchly liberal: Sanders won nearly 80% of the vote there in 2016.

That victory came in a caucus. But like Colorado, Utah has since switched to a primary, which should reward candidates with less dedicated supporter bases than Sanders’. The limited polling in the state does suggest he should still be able to walk away with a win here, though Bloomberg has blanketed the state with ads.

The Wild Cards: American Samoa (6), Democrats Abroad (13)

No one has polled in either of these low-delegate contests, and neither awards enough votes for any of the candidates to invest much time in either place, though Warren did participate in a livestream town hall with some voters in London earlier this month. American Samoa’s caucus format could benefit Sanders, though Clinton won there in 2016. The Democrats Abroad primary has tended to back liberal and reformist candidates, so Sanders and Warren may turn in strong performances.

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