vision 2020

Five Things to Watch For on Super Tuesday

Will the Democratic race after Super Tuesday essentially be a two-candidate contest? Photo: Intelligencer and Getty Images

After the marathon of the 2019 invisible primary, with its polls and debates and fundraising drives and candidates coming and going — just about everything but actual voting — the 2020 nominating contest has turned into a sprint. Super Tuesday arrives on March 3, just three days after the last of the four “early state” contests. And it is indeed super-sized, with 14 states plus American Samoa and Democrats Abroad electing a total of 1,357 pledged delegates — over a third of the total for the whole contest — on a single day. Like any other primary or collection of primaries, Super Tuesday will have its obvious winners and losers. But with so much motion in the overall race — including the rise of Bernie Sanders to front-runner, the mixed prospects of Michael Bloomberg after spending unprecedented amounts of money but bombing in two debates, and the sudden withdrawals by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and their twin endorsements of a suddenly surging Joe Biden — there are some specific things to watch when the votes begin rolling in.

It’s important to keep in mind that voting in the Super Tuesday primaries has been underway for a while. In Colorado, virtually all votes are cast by mail, and there are traditions of heavy early voting by mail or in person in other Super Tuesday states like California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Voting will also be affected by its scope: five states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas) are holding primaries for state and local offices the same day.

1. Who will be deemed the overall winner Tuesday night?

Sure, the ultimate winner of Super Tuesday will be the candidate who wins the most delegates, but some delegate tallies may not be determined or reported until days later. And while Bernie Sanders is the big favorite to win the most delegates and thus increase his cumulative lead — if only because of his strength in the largest state, California — some handicappers may focus on how many states the top candidates carry, particularly among those states considered highly competitive like Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

As of Monday night, FiveThirtyEight’s projections have Joe Biden favored in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and American Samoa., with Sanders favored in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont. If either candidate has a significantly higher number of states in the win column, that could be a dominant headline while the dust settles. Certainly the relative balance of power between the two perceived front-runners will play into renewed assessments of whether there is a likely to be a clear putative nominee by the end of primary season — or a contested convention and a possibly dramatic and enervating intra-party struggle.

2. Will Mike Bloomberg do well enough to continue?

Not very long ago, Bloomberg was expected to do extremely well on Super Tuesday thanks to his unprecedented levels of spending on both ads and staffing in the states voting Tuesday — where his name is on the ballot for the first time. Even after Bloomberg’s poor debate performances and Biden’s second-place finish in Nevada, FiveThirtyEight was projecting that the former mayor would win between 200 and 228 delegates on Super Tuesday.

But his earlier steady ascent in Super Tuesday polls has clearly stalled and reversed, and the question now is whether voters who had been considering him will begin switching (or in many cases, switching back) to Biden. A CNBC analysis before the South Carolina primary had Bloomberg measurably losing ground in California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas. You have to figure that Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina has further eroded Bloomberg’s position.

No one other than Bloomberg and his closest associates knows whether there is some benchmark in the back of his mind for how well he needs to be doing to keep pouring his fortune into a potentially wasted effort (wasted, that is, except for the undetermined value of all the Trump-bashing he’s been doing in his ads). If there is a self-set bar for Bloomberg and he fails to reach it, we could be in a two-candidate race very soon, unless, that is, there is another candidate still in the mix…

3. Will Warren win her own state and stay in the race?

Elizabeth Warren’s calculus for sticking around or folding is simpler than Bloomberg’s in one key respect: she will almost certainly lose credibility as a viable candidate if she loses her own state of Massachusetts to Bernie Sanders, which polls show could well happen. If she pulls out a win in the Bay State, and wins a significant number of delegates elsewhere (she’s still, according to polls, right around the viability threshold in delegate-rich California), she could decide to stay in the race as long as her money holds up in hopes of becoming a compromise or “unity” candidate amid a party-dividing deadlock between Biden and Sanders.

One possible decision-point for Warren: if she can stay in the race after March 3, the next candidate debate in Arizona will be on March 15. Another dazzling debate performance by Warren could keep the money flowing in and a glimmer of hope alive.

4. Where will Pete’s and Amy’s voters go?

The dramatic dual-withdrawals on Monday by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, and their dual-endorsements of Biden, are another factor suggesting late Super Tuesday momentum for Uncle Joe. Since these two candidates are generally considered fellow-moderates in the same “lane” as Biden, can he count on most of their supporters to switch to him?

As I noted before, all that early voting means a lot of wasted votes cast for Pete and Amy. Beyond that, suggests Ron Brownstein, their supporters may not naturally be attracted to Biden or to Sanders:

So far, neither Sanders nor Biden has proved himself particularly well-suited—especially in stylistic terms—for the white-collar white voters common at events for Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar….

These voters aren’t guaranteed to become the tipping point in a Sanders-Biden race. They aren’t distributed as evenly across the upcoming states as white voters without a college degree, so they may not shape the result in as many places. And there’s no assurance that they will coalesce behind one candidate. But there’s no question that there is enough of them to make a difference if they do.

The availability of these abandoned voters is another reason Warren has a tiny ray of hope — if she can win Massachusetts and avoid a ticket to the political boneyard. If, on the other hand, they do follow their former candidates into the Biden camp, it will provide another reason to do a double-take on Biden’s chances.

5. What will turnout be like?

A factor that all Democrats are nervous about is turnout: will Super Tuesday show a growing Democratic primary electorate full of enthusiasm for the task of smiting Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell in November? Or will it indicate that the defections Democrats suffered in 2016 — and thought they had permanently overcome in the 2018 midterms — could return? So far, turnout in the early state contests has been mixed, and not at all great in Iowa and Nevada — caucus states where enthusiasm should matter a lot.

Youth and minority turnout are particularly important to Democrats, since both were to a considerable extent lacking in 2016. And there’s even a game within that game, since Bernie Sanders’s electability argument is based on a claim that he can expand Democratic turnout by reaching voters (and particularly past non-voters) who won’t show up for anyone else. He will have an excellent opportunity to validate some of those arguments in California, an exceptionally diverse state where he has a very good organization and plenty of momentum. But the Golden State makes voting in Democratic presidential primaries difficult for self-declared independents, and there’s a risk that will reduce Bernie’s vote in the state to a noticeable degree, which will in turn reinforce fears that his electability is a mirage.

Beyond that, with still-valid mail ballots drifting in through March 6, and votes being counted for weeks after that, Bernie may hit his California targets perfectly without anyone knowing about it before attention is diverted elsewhere. So Super Tuesday is not just an event that began weeks ago: it may last for weeks yet to come.

Five Things to Watch For on Super Tuesday