Super Tuesday turnout suggests Biden is a better bet to beat than Sanders

One question has dominated this year’s crowded, confusing Democratic presidential primary:

Which one of these people has the best chance of defeating President ?

Just days ago, it seemed as if Democrats might never settle on an answer. There were six major candidates still in the race. Joe Biden had yet to win a contest. Mike Bloomberg loomed large. Bernie Sanders was the tentative frontrunner. 

But Biden’s 28-point victory in South Carolina on Saturday triggered one of the most rapid turnarounds in recent political history, and by the time the dust settled on Super Tuesday, Biden had swept Southern states that had been toss-ups as recently as last weekend (North Carolina, Virginia) and Northern states that had looked like locks for his rivals (Massachusetts, Minnesota). 

As of early Wednesday morning, Biden was leading in Texas, a state where Sanders led in eight of last nine polls. The former vice president also looked likely to hold Sanders to a single-digit margin of victory in California, a state where Sanders had hoped to amass an insurmountable delegate lead.

All of a sudden, Biden seemed to have the clearer path to the nomination — and to beating . That’s because the results on Super Tuesday — the closest thing to a national primary in American politics — validated the former vice president’s electability argument and undermined his rival’s.

Joe Biden speaks at a primary election night campaign rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles with his wife Jill Biden, left, and his sister Valerie. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Joe Biden speaks at a primary election night campaign rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles with his wife Jill Biden, left, and his sister Valerie. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Joe Biden speaks at a primary election night campaign rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles with his wife Jill Biden, left, and his sister Valerie. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Of all the 2020 candidates, the two septuagenarians have always offered the starkest contrast on the issue of what it will take to oust . Sanders has long said he will win by adding votes on the left. Biden claims he will win by holding onto voters in the middle.

At his Super Tuesday night rally in Burlington, Vt., Sanders vowed that his candidacy would “create the highest voter turnout in American political history” — particularly among young voters, new voters and voters of color. It’s one of his signature lines: a cornerstone of his “political revolution.”  

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Yet Sanders has not demonstrated that he can deliver on this promise. In every one of the 15 states and territories that voted Tuesday, Sanders

than he drew during his primary contest against four years earlier. Even in Sanders’s home state of Vermont, he won only 52 percent of the vote, down from 86 percent in 2016.

In the runup to Super Tuesday, a New York Times analysis found that the demographic groups Sanders is counting on have not been turning out in historic numbers, either. The Times reported that in the Iowa precincts where Sanders won, turnout increased by only one percentage point from 2016; that turnout increased far more in the New Hampshire townships where Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar won than where Sanders won; that the share of young voters remained essentially unchanged everywhere; and that the share of first-time voters actually decreased.

Those patterns largely persisted on Super Tuesday. According to the exit polls, youth turnout was down from 2016 in Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Texas — and in many cases, Sanders won a smaller share of the youth vote than he did last time around.

“If you’re Bernie Sanders, this is your worst-case scenario,” commentator Van Jones said on CNN. “Because you’re now beginning to see the logic of the revolution begin to break down: the idea that you’re going to have young people come out in large numbers.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets the audience after speaking at a campaign rally in Springfield, Va. on Feb. 29, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets the audience after speaking at a campaign rally in Springfield, Va. on Feb. 29, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets the audience after speaking at a campaign rally in Springfield, Va. on Feb. 29, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Biden mocked Sanders’s rhetoric during his own election night rally in Los Angeles. “People are talking about a revolution,” Biden said, referring to Sanders. “We started a movement. We’ve increased turnout. The turnout turned out for us!”

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Biden was correct to claim that his core supporters had shown up — particularly in suburban swing districts across Virginia, North Carolina and even Texas that will play a major role in Democratic efforts to defeat ’s GOP in November.  

In Virginia, 1.3 million Democrats voted,

the 722,000 Democrats who voted in the 2016 primary, and also far ahead of turnout in 2008, which was 976,000. Biden won the state overwhelmingly, with 53 percent of the vote to Sanders’s 23 percent.

“It doesn't seem great for Sanders's electability narrative that turnout seems to be increasing more in states where he isn't doing as well,”

, founder of the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight.

In Fairfax County, Va. — the dense suburban county just outside Washington, D.C. — Biden received almost 129,000 votes, compared to the 88,000 votes received there in the 2016 primary. 

Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said that Democrats needed to remember the 2018 midterms, when they regained control of the House of Representatives largely by flipping Republican seats in suburban districts. 

“The suburban tsunami was how we won then,” Tanden

. “We ignore these lessons at our peril for 2020.”

Former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs agreed. “Suburban neighborhoods … are crucial in a swing state in a general election,” Gibbs said on MSNBC. “Those are the places where the congressional candidates that took seats from Republicans in 2018 and where somebody’s going to have to do well in 2020 to be next president of the United States.”

And then there was the African-American vote. Biden trounced Sanders among black voters, a bedrock Democratic constituency. In North Carolina, Biden beat Sanders by 40 points among African-Americans. In Virginia, Biden’s margin was even larger: 55 points.  

Super Tuesday may have been disappointing for Sanders, but with wins in Colorado, Utah, Vermont and, most importantly, a likely victory in delegate-rich California, he will remain close to Biden in the overall delegate count. That is in large part because of his impressive Latino outreach program, which propelled him to victory in the Nevada caucuses and helped him outpace Biden by 34 points among Latinos in California.

Yet even there — a state where Sanders opened 23 field offices — the Latino share of the electorate was down two percentage points from 2008, according to preliminary exit polls.

While it's impossible to say for certain which Democratic candidate would do best in a general election, Super Tuesday showed that Biden can turn out the voters he needs to compete. Sanders, meanwhile, has yet to prove he can move his much-touted coalition to the polls.

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