‘Real battle’ ahead after Biden overtakes Sanders as Democratic front-runner

US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk at the 10th Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.
US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk at the 10th Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina. © Jonathan Ernst, REUTERS

The Super Tuesday Democratic primary results – with Joe Biden winning nine states and Bernie Sanders winning just three but also likely to take California, the state with the most delegates – have cemented the Democratic contest as a two-horse race and set the stage for a drawn-out tussle for the 2020 presidential nomination.


Sanders, the left-wing Vermont senator, was the unquestionable front-runner ahead of Super Tuesday – and now, by winning the California primary, he showed that he remains a formidable contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. 

But Biden pulled off a powerful upset even before Super Tuesday with his landslide victory in South Carolina last weekend, which turbocharged his campaign after drubbings in the first three primary contests.

The battle between their two divergent visions for the Democratic Party and the United States was centre stage on the most crucial day of the US presidential primaries, with 14 states, American Samoa and American voters abroad awarding around one-third of the delegates.   

On the one hand is Sanders’ advocacy of wide-reaching change to reorder American society along left-wing lines, including universal healthcare and offering workers an ownership stake in corporations. On the other is Biden’s incrementalist approach, demonstrated by his 36-year record as a senator known for being able to work with Republicans to advance centre-left priorities.     

Biden’s ‘remarkable achievement’

These two leading candidates imposed themselves on Super Tuesday amid humiliating performances for the alternative candidates on both wings of the party.

New York’s former mayor Mike Bloomberg threw more than half a billion dollars of his own fortune at Super Tuesday, banking on Biden continuing to flounder as he did in Iowa and New Hampshire. This strategy bombed: The centrist ex-Republican only won the US territory of American Samoa. As a result, on Wednesday Bloomberg announced he was dropping out of the race and subsequently endorsed Biden.

In Sanders’ lane, left-wing Senator Elizabeth Warren came a distant third in her home state of Massachusetts. “It’s now a question of when, not if ... Warren leaves the race,” said Robert Singh, a professor of American politics at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Biden’s victory in Warren’s home state was arguably the most striking manifestation of the former vice president’s resurgence. Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states in the country, and Sanders was riding high in polls there in the run-up to the vote while the former vice president was not even seen as much of a contender. “It’s a remarkable achievement,” Singh said. 


Former president Barack Obama’s former vice president also pulled off unexpected victories in Oklahoma and Minnesota – two states Sanders won in his 2016 battle against Hillary Clinton. Less surprisingly, Biden swept through his stronghold in the South, where his core constituency of moderates and African-Americans comprise a large part of the Democratic electorate. Biden took Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as eking out a victory in Texas, the second-most-populous state and one of its most heterogeneous. 

Exit polls showed that in many Super Tuesday states Biden was the biggest beneficiary of voters who made up their minds over the last few days. “It’s very significant that Biden won hugely among these voters,” said Iwan Morgan, a professor of American politics at University College London. “While moderates were divided, Sanders was able to capitalise on his clear leadership of a large part of the party, but the fact that centrists Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg withdrew over recent days and swung support to Biden proved crucial.”

“Suburban, white, university-educated Democrats seemed to go for Biden because many of them see him as more electable against Trump, and I suspect that elements of that constituency also see Sanders as too left-wing, as having a programme like that of [British Labour party leader] Jeremy Corbyn – lots of spending without explaining where the money would come from,” Singh added.

‘You can’t write Sanders off’

Nevertheless, Super Tuesday showed that Sanders continues to perform well with Latino voters, a major factor behind his victories in California and Colorado, not to mention his previous triumph in Nevada. In capturing those states – as well as Utah and his home state of Vermont – the self-proclaimed democratic socialist also showed his undiminished strength among the young, white voters who have been the bedrock of his support since the 2016 primaries.

Not only are they relying on different segments of the electorate, but the two leading candidates can be expected to draw on divergent strengths when it comes to the nitty-gritty of campaigning as they head towards a gruelling series of contests – including six primaries on March 10, in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington.

“Biden does well with the establishment ground game, getting endorsements, getting the support of establishment machines,” noted Scott Lucas, an expert on US politics at Birmingham University. “Sanders’ real advantage is committed activists: He’s got a lot of people to go out with posters and flyers, using social media.” 

When it comes to getting the money to pay for these campaigns, Biden enjoyed a big boost after South Carolina in the wake of a disappointing start. Following his comeback, the former vice president raised $15 million in three days. Yet the ability to garner huge sums from a plethora of small donations remains one of Sanders’ greatest strengths – as demonstrated by the record $46.5 billion his campaign raised in February from more than 2.2 million donations after months of out-raising his opponents. 

“Biden has clearly got political momentum, but when it comes to things like fundraising, Sanders is clearly playing it a lot better,” Singh said. “The media are all over Biden at the moment, but you can’t write Sanders off.” 

Given the respective strengths of both contenders, it is possible that neither Sanders nor Biden will have won a majority of delegates by the time of the Democratic convention in July.

“A contested convention is not something that could easily be ruled out,” Singh pointed out.

“In light of the ferocity and zealotry of Sanders’ base, you could see a real battle going on there. It’s also possible that if one candidate wins a narrow majority, the legitimacy issue rises again – especially if Biden wins when you’ve got a large part of the Democratic base supporting Sanders that is much further left than it was under Obama.”

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