Joe Biden takes command of Democrat race, wins three states including key Bernie Sanders bastion Michigan

Joe Biden took command of the Democratic presidential race in decisive fashion on Tuesday, marshaling a powerful multiracial coalition in the South and Midwest that swept aside Senator Bernie Sanders and completed Biden’s rapid transformation from a sometimes-fumbling underdog into his party’s likely presidential nominee

The New York Times March 11, 2020 11:12:50 IST
Joe Biden takes command of Democrat race, wins three states including key Bernie Sanders bastion Michigan

Joe Biden took command of the Democratic presidential race in decisive fashion on Tuesday, marshaling a powerful multiracial coalition in the South and Midwest that swept aside Senator Bernie Sanders and completed Biden’s rapid transformation from a sometimes-fumbling underdog into his party’s likely presidential nominee.

Replicating the combination of voters that delivered him broad victories a week ago on Super Tuesday, Biden won Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi with overwhelming support from African-Americans and with large margins among suburban and rural white voters.

Sanders was more evenly matched with Biden in the West, where Idaho and Washington were too close to call. But there was little doubt by the end of the night that Sanders had lost his recent status as the progressive frontrunner in a race defined for months by feuding and factionalism on the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.

By besting Sanders for a second consecutive week, Biden demonstrated that his successes on Super Tuesday reflected more than fleeting good fortune, and that many Democratic voters had rallied behind his candidacy in a lasting enough way to erase his embarrassing setbacks last month in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Addressing supporters in Philadelphia, in a tone that was more sober than celebratory, Biden said voters had put them “a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honour to the White House” and moved to unify the party with an appeal to supporters of Sanders. “We share a common goal,” Biden said, “and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump.”

In Tuesday’s primaries, Biden assembled a strong electoral coalition that combined his party’s most loyal constituencies — including African-Americans, women and union members — with a new wave of moderate white voters who have aligned themselves with the Democrats as refugees from Trump’s Republican Party.

Joe Biden takes command of Democrat race wins three states including key Bernie Sanders bastion Michigan

Supporters of former vice-president Joe Biden cheer at a watch party at Thomas Magee's Sporting House Whiskey Bar in Detroit. By Allison Farrand © 2020 The New York Times

Even in his moment of triumph, however, Biden made little headway with the youngest and most liberal primary voters who remained steadfastly behind Sanders even as his national prospects have dimmed. Biden appeared mindful of his deficit with these voters, using his election-night remarks to acknowledge the “tireless energy” of Sanders’ voters.

Sanders did not address supporters on Tuesday night, leaving an unusual void in the space his thunderous persona has typically occupied on election nights.

On a night of disappointments, Sanders suffered the most grievous blow in Michigan, the most closely watched contest and the biggest delegate prize of the night. After absorbing a series of unexpected losses last week, Sanders had raced to revive his candidacy in Michigan, a state that four years ago helped power his insurgent challenge to Hillary Clinton.

But even after holding several events across Michigan and mounting some of his most pointed attacks against Biden, most of all for his record on trade, Sanders was routed.

The contest in Michigan held great symbolic significance for both candidates, each of whom has presented himself as uniquely capable of reclaiming the Midwest for Democrats in 2020. Biden has long boasted of his bond with working-class voters there, while Sanders has enjoyed a lasting political glow from his upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary four years ago. His inability to replicate that feat against a more popular opponent, Biden, further undercuts his argument that only a candidate who trumpets far-reaching change can energise voters there.

The Michigan and Missouri results were especially ominous for Sanders because they suggested his strength among rural Midwestern voters in 2016 largely owed to their opposition to Clinton. Against Biden, Sanders was routed across the countryside of both states and saw working-class white voters, a pillar of his campaign four years ago, shift markedly away from him.

More important on Tuesday was the scope of Biden’s victories: With 365 delegates up for grabs, the former vice-president was poised to build what could become an insurmountable advantage. If he wins with similarly large margins next week in delegate-rich Florida, where Sanders trails badly in polls, he may make it all but impossible for the senator to catch up.

Biden’s victories came against a backdrop of unexpected instability in the economy and widespread fear about the coronavirus as a growing threat to public health — forces that may have further bolstered the former vice-president’s message of steady leadership against Sanders’ promises of social transformation. The market-rattling outbreak, along with the White House’s uncertain response, has both underscored Trump’s political vulnerability and also added to the mood of urgency among Democrats bent on defeating him.

The spread of the coronavirus across the United States also raised the specter that political activities could soon be curtailed or restructured for reasons of public health. Just hours before the polls closed, both candidates canceled planned rallies in Ohio, citing concerns related to the virus. And in his subdued remarks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden said there was a climate of fear and danger that demanded presidential leadership.

Sanders now faces the unenviable task of mapping a path forward in a race that has exposed the apparent limits of his campaign tactics and political message. While he retains a strong base of support among young and very liberal voters, and has expanded his popularity with many Latinos, he has struggled to make headway with the most important constituencies that resisted his campaign four years ago and has lost ground with some groups that backed him as the only alternative to Clinton.

In Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi, Biden won black voters by colossal margins, including by more than 70 points in Mississippi, where African-Americans made up nearly two-thirds of the primary electorate, according to exit polls. But Biden also won white voters by double digits in both states, and carried white voters without college degrees — a friendly constituency for Sanders in 2016 — by a narrower margin.

In a sign that Sanders may struggle to compete with Biden across the Midwest, the exit polls from Missouri showed that Biden carried union households by a 25-point margin over Sanders. That advantage suggests that Sanders’ populist message and hard-edge criticism of Biden’s record on trade had failed to dent the former vice president’s popularity with a key constituency that made up about a quarter of the Missouri electorate.

Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said Sanders had confronted circumstances this time that made the state a tougher battlefield for him. Brewer, who was a supporter of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said voters appeared to have made a straightforward assessment of the two candidates’ electability and that “at least for tonight, in Michigan, Biden won that argument.”

“It’s difficult to compare tonight to four years ago: There is an incumbent president, who Democrats are just focussed on replacing, and that was not the case four years ago,” Brewer said. “Sanders was the underdog four years ago, and frankly Hillary Clinton took the state for granted and did not campaign here vigorously, and so forth. It’s really apples and oranges.”

Perhaps nothing better illustrated the direction of this primary, though, than the surge in voter turnout. A centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign has been his promise to win by inspiring a wave of new voters in the primary and general election.

But for the second consecutive week it was Biden who was the beneficiary of a jump in turnout from the 2016 race, often in the sort of suburban jurisdictions that powered the Democrats’ big gains in the midterm elections. In Oakland County, Michigan, the Detroit suburb where Representative Haley Stevens picked up a Republican-held seat in 2018, Biden was winning by 20 points and turnout was on track to be about twice what it was four years ago.

The next few rounds of primaries are focused on big, diverse states where Biden is seen as having a solid advantage, including Florida and Georgia. And a number of states where Sanders won caucuses four years ago have since switched to hold primary elections, which tend to be less dominated by ideological activists, leaving Sanders without an obvious place to make a comeback.

The contests Tuesday included four states that Sanders carried against Clinton in 2016 — Michigan, Idaho, North Dakota and Washington.

But there has been no indication that many Democrats have been having second thoughts about embracing Biden, to whom the party’s voters turned abruptly last week as a safe option after a chaotic and confusing primary season. With the race effectively down to just Biden and Sanders, many Democratic leaders have clambered aboard the former vice-president’s campaign.

After Biden carried South Carolina on 29 February, rivals like former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota quickly dropped out of the race and endorsed him. Once the Super Tuesday results were known, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, did the same.

By contrast, Sanders has not managed to create a united front even on the left: Warren, a fellow progressive, has declined to issue an endorsement since leaving the race last week.

Biden, 77, and Sanders, 78, have both faced questions about their ages in recent days, as the race has narrowed to two men who would turn 80 within the space of a first presidential term — and as fears of a viral epidemic have rippled through the campaign trail. And supporters of Sanders have been sharply critical of Biden for his halting public manner and comparatively brief remarks at campaign events, with some suggesting that the former vice-president lacked the physical vigour required to win and hold the presidency.

Sanders himself has not gone that far, though in a Fox News forum Monday he criticised Biden for speaking for only a few minutes at one of his campaign rallies over the weekend.

A day later, Sanders used a Fox News forum to deliver a critique of Biden’s record but emphasised he had no interest in “making personal attacks on Joe.”

The two men are slated to meet on a debate stage in Phoenix this weekend, before the Arizona primary Tuesday, in what would be their first one-on-one encounter in the race. Sanders could face pressure on Sunday to inflict real damage on Biden, but doing so could prompt a backlash if by then he is seen as a kind of nuisance challenger with no obvious path to victory.

Many Democrats are eager to turn to the task of challenging Trump directly: Polls show that both Biden and Sanders will be competitive against the president and will probably start the General Election with something of an advantage. By a wide margin, however, Democratic voters say they view Biden as having the best chance of winning in November.

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin c.2020 The New York Times Company

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