After Joe Biden lost the first three primary states, the likelihood that he would win the Democratic nomination was just 9% compared to Bernie Sanders who was at a 40% chancing of winning the contest outright.
A month later, Joe currently sits at an over 90% likelihood of winning the nomination.
Joe Biden’s ascent to the top of the pack culminated on Super Tuesday.
In the Super Tuesday states where Democrats voted for their preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders spent way more on advertisements and on-the-ground campaign operations than Joe Biden. Bernie had the upper-hand in every metric.
But on Super Tuesday, Joe Biden absolutely shellacked Bernie Sanders. I mean it was brutal; and largely because of how unlikely it was. Biden won 10 of the 14 states that voted on Super Tuesday.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden had a 3% chance of winning those 10 Super Tuesday states.
Biden hit rock bottom in FiveThirtyEight’s Democratic Primary forecast when he had just an 8% probability of becoming the nominee for the Democratic Party on February 21st. But just two weeks later, after Super Tuesday, 538 would revise their forecast to give him an 87% chance of winning the nomination.
Today, we’re going to look at how Joe, or someone else on his behalf, bridged that gap.
Super Tuesday was ultimately a battle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Based on the early primaries, we knew that Biden would do better with certain communities, and Bernie would do better with others. If this is your preferred lens, there was no shortage of coverage on Biden’s gains with African American voters and Bernie’s success with Hispanic and Asian-American voters. In the biggest upset states, being Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Maine, i.e. states that Joe Biden had no business winning, race played a small part at best.
In these States, Joe Biden’s across-the-board biggest advantage was with voters who’s most important quality in a candidate was their Ability to Unite the Country. So, this was an interesting moment where Bernie-leaning states largely voted for Biden for that ability.
Whatever the reason was, there was a historically unprecedented shift from supporters away from Bernie Sanders and to Joe Biden. But exit polls are limited in their ability answer the question of why that shift happened so quickly.
Just before Super Tuesday, Biden picked up endorsements from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke. And those endorsements played a huge part in helping Biden win Minnesota and Texas. Those endorsements definitely helped Biden on Super Tuesday, but based on polling around who voters’ second choice is, we know that a lot of that support should have gone to either Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or even Mike Bloomberg. And based on that polling, Joe Biden shouldn’t have come close to beating Bernie Sanders in the upset states, even with the largely predictable endorsements. And those polls might have been part of the reason that forecasts were off for Super Tuesday.
So, we have reason to be skeptical of the power of those endorsements. Also though, Biden hits the floor in his chances of winning on February 21. The endorsements came right before Super Tuesday on March 1. So, we've only explained part of how Biden made a comeback in the primary.
It would be an understatement to say that Joe’s big victory in South Carolina helped him to a big victory on Super Tuesday. And there’s a lot of reasons for his success there.
For starters, Michael Bloomberg, who was Biden’s biggest moderate competitor, wasn’t on the ballot in South Carolina. So, that alone was a big advantage for Joe.
Also, South Carolina’s sentiments toward women and the LGBTQ community would work against Biden’s other moderate competitors in early primary states: Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg.
But, 3 days before the South Carolina Primary would take place, Jim Clyburn would come into the picture. Clyburn is an absolute institution in South Carolina and has represented South Carolinians in Congress for the past 27 years. At this point, he’s basically Dumbledore for South Carolina Democrats. Beloved and respected. On February 26th, he endorsed Joe Biden and that tipped the scales pretty heavily for Joe Biden in South Carolina.
I also want to take a second to explain Joe Biden as a political candidate. He excels in what lot of people call Retail Politics. That’s the part of campaigning that is pressing the flesh, kissing the babies, hearing the needs of the people directly. He’s able to connect with people very quickly and apparently on a deep level.
Many attribute this ability to connect to his having lost his wife and daughter in a car accident just after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972 in addition to the loss of his son Beau to cancer in 2015.
I’m sure this skill is helpful in Delaware, a small state and the State he represented in the US Senate.
But Presidential campaigns don’t favor candidates who are strong in retail politics and weak in other aspects of campaigning, like debate and stump speech performance, where he is consistently in the ‘loser’ column and fundraising, where he has been notoriously below average.
His inability to excel at all the other parts of campaigning are a reason why he couldn’t win the Presidency the two other time he ran for it! He’s never even come close.
As James Carville, the legendary Democratic political strategist, would put it “This ain’t his first rodeo, and he ain’t roped a cow yet.”
Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post would explain this in here piece called “There are two Joe Bidens. The wrong one is running for president.” She wrote this:
“As soon as the sound on his mic is turned off, he dives toward the area where those who remain behind are standing to shake his hand or take a selfie.
At those moments, Biden is transformed. He lingers with anyone who wants to tell him a story, even as maintenance workers start dismantling his stage and folding up chairs.”
And there was a moment, on the same day of the Clyburn endorsement, where Biden’s ability to connect became public in a way that those interactions typically aren’t. In a viral clip from a South Carolina town hall Biden spoke to a minister who lost his wife in the Emannuel AME shooting in Charleston. There's he's able to connect with the questioner through their experience with loss and takes the moment to share how his son influenced him to run in 2020. That moment was widely shared and certainly helped Biden raise in the polls.
Side note: I haven’t yet talked about policy differences between Bernie and Biden. Were the issues important? Absolutely. Did Bernie Sanders’ history opposing gun control legislation hurt him in South Carolina, home of that horrifying shooting at Emmanuel AME? Potentially, but Bernie was still surging in South Carolina well after that position, and other legislative differences with Biden, had been litigated in the court of public opinion.
THE CHANGE AGENT
But we’re still not quite to the point at which Biden bounces back from having an 8% likelihood of securing the nomination, because his rebound started before that moment at the town hall went viral and before his endorsement from Jim Clyburn, which was before all the other endorsements.
So, if those things weren’t the source of Joe Biden’s comeback? What was?
On February 19, just two days before polls would start showing the return of Biden, Elizabeth Warren lit into Michael Bloomberg. I mean he got absolutely rocked in that debate.
She came after his past of settling sexual harassment claims and successfully raised the uncertainty that came with that area of Bloomberg's history.
Up until the Nevada debate, Bloomberg had been using his outsized (to say the least) spending advantage to gain ground on Joe Biden. Going into the debate, forecasts showed he had a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than Joe Biden. But on that day, that would all change.
Commentators were unanimous in that night being a big loss for the former Mayor of New York City. And it helped that his moderate competitors also attacked each other on the debate stage.
Without Elizabeth Warren eviscerating Bloomberg in Las Vegas, Biden doesn’t go into the South Carolina primary as a favorite for becoming the consensus candidate. By process of elimination, he regains frontrunner status with moderate Democrats. And without that status, it’s very possible that Jim Clyburn doesn’t feel he has the grounding to make such a consequential endorsement, which would have given Biden a weaker South Carolina performance, which could have kept Amy and Pete in the race and could have worked to mitigate the fallout that Bloomberg was experiencing with his voter base.
And this could just be an embodiment of the Liberal vs Left-leaning ends of the Democratic Party. Polling from January through February shows that at no point is the Liberal side of the party more popular than the Left-of-Center candidates of the Party. What we saw play out was the coalescing of that moderate vote around Biden, which a lot of people said could happen, but I don’t know of anyone who predicted just how it would happen.