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If Bernie Sanders wins big on Super Tuesday, he'll be hard to stop

Sanders is heavily favored to come out of Super Tuesday with a slew of delegates and perhaps an insurmountable lead

Bloomberg  |  Washington 

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

The Democratic Party’s best chance to stop from winning its presidential nomination comes on Super Tuesday, but his two top challengers — a newly buoyant Joe Biden and a beleaguered Michael Bloomberg — both face huge obstacles to doing so.

Sanders is heavily favored to come out of Super Tuesday with a slew of delegates and perhaps an insurmountable lead, despite deep worry in establishment Democratic circles that he would lose to President Donald Trump. So if the nominee is going to be anyone but Sanders, Democrats in the 14 states voting in the single-biggest day of balloting need to choose an alternative.

“Well, I think it’s no secret that the establishment is getting very nervous, whether it is the corporate wing of the Democratic Party or the political leadership. And the argument that we can’t beat Trump is absolutely wrong,” Sanders told reporters in Los Angeles.

With his commanding win in South Carolina Saturday, Biden pitched himself as that candidate, and many party leaders rallied to his side with well-timed endorsements. But he’s low on cash, his Super Tuesday operation is negligible and the sprawling map negates his strongest asset: a folksy one-on-one appeal.

That leaves Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who has risen to the top tier through the force of more than $538 million in advertising. He has defied new calls to drop out — coming loudest from the Biden camp —before he has earned a delegate or appeared on a ballot.

Bloomberg bet his whole candidacy on Super Tuesday, the first time he’ll face voters, but if anything, he seems to be stalling right at the moment he hoped to peak. A pair of shaky debate performances and fresh scrutiny of his record on minorities and women has tarnished his persona as the competent alternative to a president he calls dangerously incompetent.

Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar all won delegates in early contests but were boxed out in South Carolina. Buttigieg saw no path forward, and without much money left, dropped out of the race Sunday.

Unless Warren or Klobuchar can mount an improbable upset win on Tuesday, their continued presence in the race only helps Sanders, by diffusing the anti-Sanders delegates. They, too, are likely to face pressure to drop out if they fare poorly on Super Tuesday. Klobuchar, in particular, will be pressed to step aside, even though she probably will carry her home state of Minnesota.

Without Buttigieg, Tuesday now has five competitive candidates -- and the bigger the field, the better it is for Sanders, who commands an army of supporters fiercely loyal to him, his unorthodox campaign persona and left-of-center policy prescriptions.

Super Tuesday awards 1,344 delegates overall -- most of the 1,991 needed to clinch the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, with 415 coming out of California alone, where Sanders leads. He could put himself almost out of reach if he gets the lion’s share of the day’s spoils and others carve up the rest. There are other big delegate hauls out there, including an April 28 primary day that includes New York state, but Tuesday’s is the biggest.

“Fragmentation is a big problem,” said David Price, a North Carolina congressman who has endorsed Biden. “It’s about having so many candidates who are dividing the vote. It’s a problem going into Super Tuesday but I certainly hope that coming out of Super Tuesday we can see a path forward where not all those candidates remain in the race and we can begin to focus on fewer contenders.”

The sprawling field also has spurred worries among Democrats that no candidate can win the required delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first convention ballot, leading to a messy and divisive floor fight over the nomination.

Democratic rules leave open such a possibility by requiring a candidate to get at least 15 per cent — either statewide or in a congressional or state legislative district — to win delegates. That means even someone who does poorly in the statewide totals can pocket a few delegates and make it hard for one person to amass enough to win outright before the July convention.

It looks like only Sanders — who’s polling at about 30 per cent nationally — can consistently hit that mark. He’s leading in the polls in California, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Colorado and Utah, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls taken before South Carolina.

In those polls, Biden led only in North Carolina, the third-biggest Super Tuesday state, although several smaller states have no reliable public polling to set expectations.

Biden has reason to be optimistic. Winning begets winning, and Biden’s victory in South Carolina was the most dominant of any state yet.

His 29-point margin over Sanders Saturday gives Biden a shot of momentum, that fickle and elusive quality that energizes campaigns, fills bank accounts and drives news coverage.

Biden said Sunday he had raised $5 million in the 24 hours around the South Carolina primary. He appeared on several Sunday shows and noted that he has won more votes in the first four contests than Sanders, despite trailing him narrowly in delegates.

“I can win in places where I don’t think Bernie can win in a general election,” Biden said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Biden has been on the wrong end of momentum before. He had almost consistently led the national polls from the moment he got in the race last April.

After coming in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, he lost that national lead to Sanders, who won the Nevada caucus over Biden by about 26 percentage points. History has shown that once a candidate loses an early polling lead, it’s almost impossible to get back.

Besides North Carolina, Biden’s other strongholds are likely to be in other Super Tuesday states with large African-American populations, like Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, where he hopes voters reward him for being a loyal vice president to Barack Obama for two terms.

Bloomberg entered the race late, on Nov. 24, and attempted to do something never before tried, skipping the first four contests to focus on Super Tuesday. He began to rise in national and state polls in the midst of his advertising barrage, as Democrats cast about for a candidate to stop Sanders and saw the billionaire Bloomberg as someone who could match Trump dollar for dollar or even outspend him, as he is self-funding his campaign.

First Published: Tue, March 03 2020. 00:43 IST