Julie Pace: Biden time as Bernie Sanders slumps on biggest day

Julie Pace: Biden time as Bernie Sanders slumps on biggest day
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a primary election night rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Two white men in their late-70s will now battle it out to become the standard-bearer for an increasingly diverse Democratic party in the US. Julie Pace reports from Washington

Less than a month ago, Joe Biden’s campaign was in free fall. Even after he mounted a comeback in South Carolina, he confronted the reality of competing in crucial Super Tuesday contests with little money and no discernible campaign infrastructure.

It didn’t matter.

The former vice president swept to victory in Democratic primary contests across the country, from New England to the Atlantic seaboard swing states, from the Upper Midwest to the Deep South. His coalition was broad, with black voters, women, older and college-educated voters all drawn to his campaign.

Biden’s stunning performance cemented a remarkable turnabout, remaking the Democratic presidential primary with head-spinning speed. A candidate once on the brink of collapse, Biden is now a favourite for his party’s nomination.

“I’m here to report, we are very much alive,” Biden declared at a raucous rally in Los Angeles.

California, the night’s biggest prize, was one of the few states Biden lost to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But Biden picked off Texas, the second-biggest state up for grabs, as well as eight other contests. His victories in Virginia and North Carolina, two crucial general-election states, were particularly decisive.

Biden’s show of force puts him on a collision course with Sanders that will test who Democrats view as more electable in November. Sanders, a liberal firebrand, has spent decades calling for sweeping overhauls of economic and health care systems, while Biden, a moderate, is running less as an ideologue and more as a candidate who can reset the nation after President Donald Trump’s divisive administration.

Sanders’ fast start in this primary season — he won in New Hampshire and Nevada and effectively tied in Iowa — rattled centrist Democrats who fear he is out of step with vast swaths of the electorate and would not only cost the party the White House, but also the House and the Senate.

Many in the party quickly recognised that Sanders was benefiting from a crowded field of more moderate candidates who were dividing up the rest of the Democratic electorate. But it wasn’t until Biden’s commanding victory in South Carolina on Saturday that they began to see him as the best alternative.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a primary night election rally in Essex Junction, Vt., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a primary night election rally in Essex Junction, Vt., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The speed at which Biden’s standing has shifted is virtually unprecedented in recent memory.

In the days since South Carolina, high-profile Democrats have flocked to Biden’s campaign with dizzying speed, including several former rivals whose campaigns once appeared promising. Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke all endorsed Biden on Monday in a forceful show of party unity.

Much-needed money is also pouring in, including from some wealthy donors who have fretted for months about Biden’s vulnerabilities coming off the sidelines. That influx of cash will allow Biden to build out the kind of campaign operations in upcoming states that he lacked in the Super Tuesday contests.

Indeed, the resource gap between Biden and some of his rivals on Tuesday was staggering, making his successes all the more striking.

In Minnesota and Massachusetts, billionaire Mike Bloomberg — who ended his bid for the White House yesterday — plunged roughly $17 million into TV. Biden carried both states without spending a dollar, according to TV advertising data released late last week.

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg waves during a primary election night rally, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg waves during a primary election night rally, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In Virginia, a key general-election state where Biden won by more than 25 percentage points, the former vice president spent a paltry $291,000 to Bloomberg’s $12 million, the data shows.

A similar pattern emerged in Texas, where Bloomberg spent $47.8 million to Biden’s $291,000, and in North Carolina, where Bloomberg outspent Biden 28 times over.

Bloomberg ended the night without winning a single state, though he picked up a smattering of delegates. He met with advisers in New York and later announced his withdrawal from the race, having spent half a billion dollars.

Also facing reality: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who finished a disappointing third in her home state. Though she’s vowed to take her campaign to a contested convention, it was unclear how she would justify continuing with little to cling to out of the Super Tuesday results.

That leaves Biden and Sanders, two white men in their late 70s, to battle it out to become the standard-bearer for an increasingly diverse party.

The race has echoes of Sanders’ face-off in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, a more moderate candidate who was deemed a safer choice until her stunning loss to Trump in the general election. Sanders and his supporters are urging the party against taking a similar path this time around.

But Biden’s surge has underscored just how many Democrats fear the prospect of a Sanders nomination. If Bloomberg were to drop out in the coming days, it’s likely he would plunge his fortune into helping Biden and blasting Trump with millions of dollars in television advertising through the fall.

To be sure, Biden remains a candidate with risk.

He has struggled to mobilise young voters and at times seems out of step with his party’s energised left flank. He has also proven to be an uneven campaigner, often delivering unwieldy, rambling speeches.

But his vastly improved prospects appear to have refocused Biden.

He was visibly energised as he blitzed the Super Tuesday states, relishing an outpouring of support from voters and party leaders who had appeared ready to send him into retirement just days ago.

“They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing!” Biden exclaimed.

The map ahead

NOW Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden will battle tooth-and-nail over the next several weeks to determine which ideological course the party takes in the run-up to the November 3 general election against Republican president Donald Trump.

Sanders is a staunch advocate for government-run healthcare and other policies that would redistribute wealth and attack income inequality.

Biden adopts a more traditional Democratic platform and has warned that Sanders’ healthcare plan is financially unfeasible.

“This will become a contrast in ideas,” Sanders said.

Biden has warned that Sanders’ progressive positions would result in him losing large swaths of the nation to Trump should he be the nominee. That argument was strengthened by Biden’s success on Tuesday in states such as North Carolina, won by Trump in 2016, and Minnesota, a top Trump target this year.

Biden has a prime opportunity as the primary calendar shifts to moderate midwestern states such as Michigan and Ohio, where both he and Sanders will battle for working-class voters. Georgia, with its large black population, could hand Biden another commanding win.

And looming large is Florida, with its 219 delegates, where polls have shown Biden with a steady lead in the state.

To win those states, Biden will have to build the kind of electoral coalition he began to assemble on Tuesday.

Already strong with African-American voters, Biden showed new-found strength on Tuesday with the kind of suburban, affluent white voters who had gravitated to fellow candidate, senator Elizabeth Warren and former opponents Pete Buttigieg and senator Amy Klobuchar.

Biden largely bested Sanders among women. In North Carolina, for example, Biden received twice as much support from women than Sanders, according to exit polls from Edison Research. In Massachusetts, Warren’s home state, Biden almost pulled even with her for support from women voters.

Among Democrats who voted on Tuesday, Biden received the most votes from party members who said a candidate able to beat Trump was more important than a candidate who agreed with them, an electability argument that Biden makes on the campaign trail.

He was also the favourite of voters who want a return to the policies of Biden’s old boss, former president Barack Obama. Those who favour more dramatic change sided with Sanders, exit polls showed.

Biden has to worry about Sanders’ popularity with Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the Democratic Party. Those voters helped power Sanders’ lead in California, the biggest prize on the electoral map with 416 delegates, and helped keep him competitive in Texas.

In Los Angeles, Biden said that predictions Super Tuesday would end his campaign turned out to be wrong.

“I’m here to report: We are very much alive,” he said.

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