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Millions of US primary voters head to polls as 'Super Tuesday' gets under way

A poll worker drops drive-through ballots into a ballot box in San Diego on March 3, 2020, as 14 states including California hold primaries on Super Tuesday.
A poll worker drops drive-through ballots into a ballot box in San Diego on March 3, 2020, as 14 states including California hold primaries on Super Tuesday. © Mike Blake, Reuters

Millions of voters from Maine to California are headed to the polls for Super Tuesday, when a third of all delegates are up for grabs as 14 states and the US territory of American Samoa vote in primary contests.

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Racking up delegates is a key stage in the battle for the eventual presidential nomination, a fight that is shaping up to be a choice between two starkly different visions for the Democratic Party's future as it readies to mount a November challenge to President Donald Trump. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has energised liberals and young voters, has sought to pull away from the rest of the Democratic field – often deriding them as the "establishment" – while former vice president Joe Biden is hoping to ride a wave of momentum and Democratic endorsements to cement himself as the standard-bearer for the party’s moderate wing. 

The two men, riding atop a rapidly shrinking Democratic field, have assembled coalitions of disparate demographics and political beliefs, and the day's results could help shape whether the nomination fight will stretch until the party's convention this summer in Milwaukee.

Biden’s presidential bid picked up steam on Monday as he gained the endorsements of two former 2020 rivals – Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg – on the eve of the crucial Super Tuesday primary elections.

But the 14 coast-to-coast contests seemed certain to provide several other twists and turns, including the first test of billionaire former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s massive spending in the Democratic race. Bloomberg skipped the first four states, banking on more than half a billion dollars in advertising and ground operations in an unorthodox and untested method of securing support from moderates.

Despite trailing the front-runners in the polls, Bloomberg and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren could nevertheless act as spoilers in the race, with Bloomberg potentially luring moderates away from Biden and Warren doing the same for liberals who might otherwise support Sanders. 

Last-minute push

Biden's new supporters deployed on the morning talk shows on Super Tuesday to praise him – Klobuchar on NBC's “Today” show and former presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke on MSNBC's “Morning Joe".

Sanders and his closest advisers pushed back against the shift of party establishment and donor class toward Biden. Campaigning in Minnesota, Sanders sought to beat back Biden's momentum with a welcoming message to Klobuchar and Buttigieg supporters. 

“To all of Amy and Pete’s millions of supporters, the door is open. Come on in," Sanders said. “We all share the understanding that together we are going to beat Donald Trump.”

Bloomberg began Tuesday in Florida, which does not vote until March 17, acknowledging that he may not win any of the 14 Super Tuesday contests but vowing to keep up the fight until the Democratic National Convention in Wisconsin in July. He would need to win the nomination at a brokered convention because, “I don't think I can win any other way."

“You don’t have to win states, you have to win delegates,” Bloomberg said. He suggested that no one will get a majority of delegates and “then you go to a convention, and we’ll see what happens”. 

A party divided

Tuesday is the most anticipated of crossroads in the Democrats' turbulent primary season as the party struggles to unify behind a clear message or messenger in its urgent quest to defeat the president. 

Sanders, 78, is a self-described democratic socialist who has scored four consecutive first- or second-place finishes in primary contests, relying on an energised and youthful grass-roots movement that is drawn to his promise to transform the nation's political and economic systems. Biden, 77, is a longtime politician widely viewed as a decent man but whose campaign has struggled at times to excite voters with a message emphasising a pragmatic approach to governing and change. 

Compared to Sanders and Bloomberg, Biden is understaffed and underfunded. But his blowout victory in South Carolina last weekend put him firmly back in the race. He went into Super Tuesday confident in his ability to win states that resemble South Carolina's demographic makeup: those with large African-American and white moderate populations. That makes Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia potential Biden victories, even in a splintered field.

Yet some of Super Tuesday’s more valuable terrain is less forgiving.

Sanders has predicted victory in California, the day’s largest delegate prize. The state, like delegate-rich Texas, plays to his strengths given its significant factions of liberal whites, large urban areas with younger voters and a strong Latino population. Sanders also enjoys obvious advantages in his home state of Vermont, and in neighbouring Massachusetts, where he’s eyeing a knockout blow against progressive rival Warren in her home state. 

Read more: Democrats pull out the stops to woo California’s Hispanic voters

While Tuesday's outcome is uncertain, there is another complication: A significant number of votes were cast in the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday’s elections – when Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Tom Steyer were still in the race. 

At least 1.4 million people have already voted in California’s Democratic primary, for example, according to data collected by The Associated Press. In Texas, more than 1 million early Democratic votes have been cast. And in Virginia, nearly 28,000 people voted early, twice as many as in 2016.

Through four primary contests, the AP allocated 60 delegates to Sanders, 54 to Biden and eight to Warren. 

The first four states were always more about momentum than math, but Super Tuesday states offer more than 1,300 new delegates based on how candidates finish. Just 155 delegates have been awarded so far.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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