A week after an impressive Super Tuesday performance gave him the upper hand in the Democratic nomination race, former Vice President Joe Biden solidified his position last night with another round of big wins. Most importantly, Biden handily won Michigan — the big delegate prize on March 10 — by a double-digit margin. It was a state that Sen. Bernie Sanders won in 2016 and probably needed to win again to reset the 2020 race.
Biden’s victories on Tuesday night largely matched our expectations, but that in and of itself confirmed Biden’s massive advantage in the overall contest. Coming in, Biden looked almost certain to win Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri — and he did so emphatically. Biden also appeared to be a solid bet to carry Idaho despite the fact Sanders has been strong in western states — and Biden won there by 6 percentage points. The outcomes in the states that remain uncalled — North Dakota and Washington — look uncertain, but the states also have many votes left to count and, however the results shake out, they won’t change the fundamental fact that Biden came out way ahead on Tuesday.
Biden’s big wins were comprehensive. He won by 16 points in Michigan and carried every county.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/joe-biden-now-has-a-clear-path-to-be-the-democratic-nominee/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
Because of a sampling snafu, the exit poll data lacked information on early and absentee voters in Michigan, making it problematic for use in this analysis.
“>1 In Missouri, where Sanders lost by less than a point in 2016, Biden won by 25. The preliminary exit poll found that he carried both white and black voters by at least 20 points each in Missouri, including an 18-point advantage among white non-college graduates, who made up a plurality of the electorate. In Mississippi, Biden won by 66 points, fueled by a massive 77-point lead among black voters, who made up around two-thirds of the state’s electorate. And it looks as if Sanders will miss the 15 percent delegate threshold in two Mississippi congressional districts (and maybe statewide too), helping Biden vacuum up more delegates.
Biden’s hot streak will likely burn into next week with four delegate-rich contests in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona. Sanders had less than a 1 in 10 shot of victory in any one of those states before yesterday’s vote, according to our forecast, and the same was true for Georgia, which votes on March 24. As of 2 a.m. Wednesday, Biden had added 64 net delegates to his lead over Sanders with Tuesday’s contests, and now has 806 pledged delegates to 662 for Sanders, according to ABC News. If Biden wins around 60 percent of delegates in contests moving forward — roughly his share yesterday — he will be close to a pledged delegate majority by late May and a shoo-in to have a sizable plurality. The point is, Sanders’s path to the nomination — barring something very unexpected happening — is almost nonexistent.
With Biden on track to reel off more wins in the coming weeks and build toward a delegate majority, he spoke about party unity in his speech on Tuesday night. “I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” said Biden. “We share a common goal, and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together.”
All eyes now turn to Sanders, who has some tough decisions to make going forward. On top of his bleak delegate outlook, post-Super Tuesday national polls showed Biden ahead of Sanders by more than 15 points, suggesting the race just isn’t all that close. Remarkably, then, the 2020 Democratic primary may not be as competitive as the 2016 one, even if Sanders fights on despite having little chance of winning a delegate edge. Sanders didn’t speak on Tuesday night, perhaps a sign that his campaign is figuring out its next steps. (Concerns about the COVID-19 virus led Sanders and Biden to cancel campaign rallies Tuesday night.)
But before we get ahead of ourselves trying to write the conclusion to the 2020 Democratic race, Sanders says he will still be at Sunday’s debate in Phoenix, which won’t have a live audience because of fears about COVID-19. That event may prove to be Sanders’s last gasp, but debates can change the dynamics of a primary race. Yet unless Biden dramatically screws up — never say never — it’s hard to imagine the debate altering the race’s trajectory enough to threaten Biden’s position.
Sanders may have three options for how to proceed at this point. He could drop out — which would thrill establishment leaders in the Democratic Party — but that still seems unlikely in the immediate future. He could continue running to win, which would necessitate going hard after Biden and potentially exacerbating divisions within the party, an approach that could even backfire on Sanders if he’s seen as helping President Trump. Lastly, Sanders could also continue his campaign less to win than demonstrate the power and influence of progressives within the Democratic Party in the hopes of winning more concessions.
Even if Sanders opts to fight on, which would certainly be in keeping with his style, it’s unclear where he can win unless something big changes. While the race may not be over, it increasingly seems that we’re not that far away from calling Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee.
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Welcome to another episode of Confidence Interval, where we make a persuasive case for a political argument, and then reveal just how confident we really are.
In this video, managing editor Micah Cohen makes the case that despite former Vice President Joe Biden’s success on Super Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders still has a shot at the Democratic nomination.
Welcome back to our new video series, Confidence Interval, where we persuasively argue for a political take and then reveal just how confident we really are.
In this episode, elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley explains why former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign may not actually be ending.
Earlier today, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich and I wrote about the final FiveThirtyEight forecast before Super Tuesday. There are basically two big themes there. First, yes, the model has shifted strongly to Biden in recent days because of his big win in South Carolina and a major bounce for him in polls of Super Tuesday states. But second, there’s a lot of uncertainty, both in terms of what happens tonight and for the rest of the race. The most likely outcome is still that there’s no pledged delegate majority on June 6, once all states and territories have finished voting.
I’m going to focus more on the uncertainty in this story. Let’s stress test the model and see how its Super Tuesday projections might change if various candidates perform better or worse than our projections expect. (If you want to do your own version of this, you can! Please see our Super Tuesday scenarios interactive here.)
Scenario 1: The model is all-knowing
First, let’s establish a baseline case. Here’s how delegates would be allocated tonight under the DNC’s rules if our forecast is exactly right in every state and Congressional district. If this happens (it will not), I’m going to buy myself a really nice steak dinner tomorrow night. (Also, it will probably mean we’re living in a simulation, so this is not necessarily something to root for.)
In the base case, we have Biden finishing just slightly ahead of Sanders, with 461 delegates (34 percent of the total possible tonight) to Bernie’s 445 (33 percent). But our baseline projections also have Bloomberg and Warren also picking up decent numbers of delegates. Heck, they even have Klobuchar staying just above 15 percent of the vote in Minnesota and thereby getting delegates there, even though she dropped out. So basically, the base case for tonight is that one-third of the delegates go to Biden, one-third go to Sanders and one-third go to “other,” which is why we could be headed to a no majority (and possibly contested convention) outcome.
Scenario 2: Biden overperforms
Let’s say, though, that Biden has a really good night — even better than our forecast shows. That’s certainly possible; as aggressive as the model has been in trying to account for his bounce, he keeps moving up in the model every time we feed it new polling data. Even the latest, freshest polls may not sufficiently account for Pete Buttigeg and Amy Klobuchar dropping out and endorsing Biden, which is one way he could beat his forecast, for instance.
To do this, let’s add 6 percentage points to our Biden forecast in every state and district. We’ll take those 6 points evenly from the other major candidates — so Biden gets 2 points each from Sanders, Warren and Bloomberg.
In this case, Biden would finish 169 delegates ahead of Sanders. That’s hardly an insurmountable lead in a race with 3,979 pledged delegates total. But, the narrative of the evening would be quite poor for Sanders, perhaps leading to further Biden gains in subsequent states. That’s because, in this scenario, Sanders’s wins would be limited to Maine and Vermont, with Biden pulling off upsets in Massachusetts, Utah, Colorado and — most importantly, and only by the slimmest of margins — California.
Again, this is a dream scenario for Biden and very much not the base case. But the point is that Biden is surging so much that we can’t rule outcomes like this out. Even in states like California, Sanders’s lead has slipped into the high single digits, to the best we can determine based on the few polls available.
As a slight silver lining for Sanders, note that he actually wins exactly as many delegates here (445) as in the base case. That’s because Biden’s gains would take away votes from Bloomberg and Warren, knocking them below the 15 percent threshold in many districts, leaving Biden and Sanders more delegates to divvy up for themselves. Still, I’m sure Sanders would prefer to avoid this outcome.
Scenario 3: Sanders overperforms
But what if things go really well for Sanders instead? Here’s what the delegates look like if Sanders beats our forecast by 6 points across the board, taken equally from Biden, Bloomberg and Warren.
This scenario has Sanders beating Biden by 118 delegates tonight. A few days ago, this might have seemed like an above-average outcome for Biden — one that left Sanders favored but Biden still in the running.
Now, it might seem like a big moment for Sanders instead. Biden’s wins would be limited to North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma and Arkasnas — not nothing, but he’d yet to have proven he could win anywhere outside of the South. Meanwhile, Sanders would penetrate into Biden’s territory by winning two southern states, Texas and Tennessee.
Scenario 4: Voters decide it’s Biden vs. Sanders
Next up is a scenario that intuitively seems plausible to me. Let’s imagine voters take the hint that it’s a two-candidate race and gravitate further toward both Biden and Sanders at the expense of the rest of the field. If you add 3 points to both Biden and Sanders’s numbers in every district and subtract 3 points from both Bloomberg and Warren, here’s what you get:
Note that the overall margin between Biden and Sanders has barely changed — but their proportions have improved relative to the field. Biden gets 44 percent of Super Tuesday delegates instead of 34 percent as in Scenario 1, and Sanders gets 43 percent instead of 33 percent. This type of outcome would greatly reduce — though not entirely eliminate — the chance of “no majority” or contested convention. It would also undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on Bloomberg and Warren to exit the race.
Scenario 5: Bloomberg and Warren overperform
Finally, suppose just the opposite happens and Warren and Bloomberg each beat their projections. I don’t necessarily see this happening but who knows! Maybe Warren’s voters are tired of their candidate being discounted and dig in their heels. And maybe Bloomberg’s expensive Super Tuesday ground game has a bigger effect than polls are showing. In accounting for uncertainty in a forecast, it’s important to be prepared for the forecast to be wrong in all directions — not just the directions you intuitively expect.
This would take us far down the path toward a contested convention. Biden and Sanders would essentially tie on the evening with 389 and 388 delegates respectively, but Bloomberg (298 delegates) and Warren (257 delegates) wouldn’t be that far behind. (Note that, because Warren is in danger of failing to meet the 15 percent threshold in more places than Bloomberg is, slightly overperforming her forecasts would be a bigger deal for her than for him.) Nobody would have more than 30 percent of the total delegates.
The tricky part for Warren and Bloomberg is that, although it isn’t that hard for them to accumulate quite a few delegates tonight, winning states is another story. Even in this optimistic scenario, Warren’s only win would come in Massachusetts, her home state. And the best Bloomberg would do would be to tie for the pledged delegates win in a rather odd pairing of states, Arkansas and Utah. I honestly have no idea how such an outcome would be interpreted by voters, the media and the candidates. But it would mean that we were probably in store for a very long and bumpy race.