After a remarkable coast-to-coast competition in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden captured at least nine of the 14 states voting, including some—such as Minnesota and Oklahoma—where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won big in 2016.
The surprisingly decisive result left Sanders facing a new challenge: finding a second act that can appeal to voters beyond the fervid base he has established. The evening’s clearest message was that while the senator from Vermont has inspired a passionate depth of support, the breadth of his coalition remains too limited to win the nomination.
The Biden surge started with a resounding victory in South Carolina last Saturday. The next 72 hours saw top party leaders consolidate behind Biden, and an array of key party voting groups united around the former vice president—and against Sanders.
Sanders reached 33 percent or more of the vote in just five of the 14 states that voted (including his home state of Vermont) and did not exceed 36 percent, his share in Colorado. Biden had a higher ceiling: He won at least 39 percent in seven states and roughly a third of the vote in three others.
But the results did not ensure a Biden nomination or a Sanders defeat. Sanders still won four states, including a solid victory in California, the largest prize on the board. He retained enthusiastic backing from his base: young voters, the most liberal voters, and Latinos, the key group that he has moved in his direction since his first bid in 2016.
Moreover, Sanders’s small-donor fundraising remains unparalleled. And big showdowns are looming over the next two Tuesdays, including in Florida, Arizona, and a quartet of Rust Belt battlegrounds: Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan.
If Biden wins next week in Michigan, a state Sanders captured four years ago, the rationale for the senator’s candidacy could quickly become murky.
Last night, Sanders failed on almost every front to enlarge his coalition. He faced a sharp recoil from groups that have long been the most skeptical of him, including African Americans and older voters. Biden, conversely, received exactly the kind of consolidation among black voters that his campaign had hoped for after his strong performance in South Carolina: He carried about three-fifths or more of African American voters in Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama and a majority in Tennessee, according to the exit polls. Outside of Vermont, Sanders faced cavernous deficits among voters 45 and older, who composed a clear majority of the electorate in most states.
Across the country, Sanders also lost ground among white voters up and down the socioeconomic ladder. College-educated white voters, who on the whole had been skeptical of both men until Biden won them in South Carolina, broke decisively for the former vice president in most states. Simultaneously, in most states, Biden reversed Sanders’s previously consistent advantage among white voters without a college degree.
That latter breakthrough could be especially important for Biden in the upcoming Midwest states, where blue-collar white voters constitute a larger share of the Democratic primary electorate than in most places. A poll from Michigan released last night showed Biden pulling past Sanders there, even before the Super Tuesday results.
Despite his extraordinary victory on Super Tuesday, Biden hardly solved all his political problems. His performance remained weak among young voters. Latinos still broke decisively away from the former vice president in Texas and California. And his victory speech was scattered and disjointed; Biden could soon face a one-on-one debate with Sanders, who has proved much more nimble in those confrontations.
One thing is clear: As the race reduces to a binary choice between Biden and Sanders, it’s Sanders who emerged from the biggest night on the primary calendar with the greatest need to change the dynamic in the race.