For all the talk of Joe Biden’s inevitability, the former vice president has won 45 percent or less of the delegates pledged to date. When the dust has settled on Super Tuesday ballot counting, his 50–75 delegate lead over Vermont senator Bernie Sanders will be smaller than Barack Obama’s more-than-100-delegate lead over Hillary Clinton at the end of February 2008. And it is far smaller than Clinton’s 224 pledged delegate lead over Sanders after Super Tuesday in 2016. Both of those races continued through June, and we should expect that 2020’s Democratic nomination process may well be even more competitive.
Bernie will have to hold Biden to something like 45 percent in the remaining contests. As implausible as that might seem at the moment, it should be remembered that just a week ago, Biden commanded only 15 percent of delegates available through the first three contests.
While Biden does have the wind at his back, “Gaffe Master Flash,” as Jon Stewart once dubbed him, will no longer be able to hide in a crowded field of eight or more candidates all vying for major attention. His speaking time in debates will now need to triple or quadruple, and the penchants for plagiarism and biography embellishment that helped sink previous Biden candidacies will now take center stage.
The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, is out with television ads trumpeting the fact that Bernie has also been friendly with Barack Obama — even earning the former president’s respect — and using Joe’s own explicit support for freezing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Those powerful words were only one small part of Biden’s decades-long crusade to balance the budget by cutting entitlements rather than increasing taxes on the wealthy or reining in military spending.
Here are two plausible paths that could see Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee come Milwaukee in July.
Path A: A “Just Short” Plurality (1,285+ or 52% of Remaining)
It does require a fair bit of whiplash to transition from the fourteen-month race, initially with twenty or more candidates, to a head-to-head contest in the space of just hours. It is marginally possible for Sanders to win a plurality in a head-to-head contest. (This path assumes again that Warren does not immediately endorse.) It would have to be a plurality, though, where Sanders also has a clear enough lead over Biden that party officials will have to think seriously about the destruction that would be wrought in elevating the second place candidate over the first.
Sanders would need to win about 52 percent of remaining delegates, finishing at something like 1,910 delegates to Biden’s approximately 1,870. Sanders would want the popular-vote lead in this scenario as well. Adding Elizabeth Warren’s 76 delegates (Warren supporting Sanders should not be assumed in this path) and even Tulsi Gabbard’s two delegates from American Samoa would not get Sanders to 1,990.
It would be possible, then, to block a first ballot win for Sanders with only Michael Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg unsuspending their candidacies just long enough to have their delegates cast a vote for them or for Biden on first ballot. Failing a coalition majority for Biden (the rules for such first-ballot coalitions are unclear, complex, and largely untested), superdelegates would be backup, providing one final Biden rescue effort on ballot number two in Milwaukee.
The only form of insurance against this turn of events for Sanders is that, more than anything else, it would signal not only a near-guaranteed second term for Donald Trump, but likely the end of the tenuous alliances that now make up the entire Democratic Party structure.
While the party establishment might risk that, it’s not at all certain they’d take that gamble — possibly even unlikely.
Path B: A Combined Majority (1,300+ or 53% of Remaining)
This path is very similar to Path A, but it’s more optimistic. We saw flashes in debates this summer of how powerful a tag team Warren and Sanders could be when it seemed that they were holding to an unstated nonaggression pact. All of that blew apart in the fall and especially into January. In this path, Warren immediately endorses Sanders, and they barnstorm the country together with energy and passion for big structural change. Sanders reaching 53 percent seems far more plausible in this imagined world.
It may well, however, be a dream far too good to be true. You can be sure that establishment Democrats are putting their very best foot forward in private to keep Warren from doing this, even if it most likely means selling her on reverting to her “neutral” stance of 2016 — or possibly even endorsing Biden.
Biden, the Zombie Candidate
After the surreal weekend that began on Saturday in South Carolina, one would be forgiven for thinking that the police have arrived and the party is over.
But Joe Biden is, in fact, a zombie candidate jolted back to life with a few phone calls from Obama. Now there’s nowhere left for the candidate to hide, though — the same candidate who wildly claimed to have been “arrested in South Africa with the UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto,” then walked it back a few days later. Such inventions would completely kill the chances of a lesser candidate. A living candidate.
What is the proper way to lay to rest a presidential campaign where the candidate himself has long since passed, but where no one — particularly the Democratic establishment — can afford to acknowledge it?
We’re all about find out.