America’s Presidential Race after Super Tuesday
March 9, 2020
As is often the case in American presidential elections, Super Tuesday—party primary elections and caucuses that award roughly one-third of the delegates at stake in the nominating process, held on the first Tuesday in March—has substantially clarified the contours of the race, if not its eventual outcome.
With help from other moderate candidates following his victory in the South Carolina primary three days earlier, former Vice President Joe Biden’s striking and historically rare comeback after sound defeats in earlier voting has returned him to front-runner status and solidified the Democratic nominating contest as a battle between establishment Democrats and left-wing populists supporting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
At the same time, Super Tuesday has altered the dynamics of the forthcoming general election campaign, though the November presidential election remains distant and murky.
Several factors are important in trying to understand a nominating contest between Biden and Sanders and then an election pitting the victor against President Donald Trump.
The American Media
First, American mainstream media reports following Super Tuesday have been especially favorable to Biden, whom establishment media figures have defined as the Democratic candidate best able to beat Trump in November. There is some basis for this—polls show that Democrats who want an “electable” candidate prefer Biden—but it also seems to reflect the mainstream media’s deep distaste for Trump (despite his undeniable contribution to their ratings and revenue).
Conservative media, which appear to see Biden as a greater danger to Trump than Sanders, tend to focus on Biden’s weaknesses. Thus, it is useful to keep in mind that American media are not and will not be wholly neutral or objective in reporting on the race.
Establishments vs. Populists
Second, establishment politicians like Biden have considerable advantages over populist candidates like Sanders (or, for that matter, like 2016 candidate Donald Trump). After all, establishment figures typically dominate in party leadership positions, both in party institutions like the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) and in governing institutions like the Congress and state and local governments and legislatures.
This provides establishment candidates with strong networks of influential potential allies in a battle with a populist, insurgent or outsider. These individuals are free to endorse candidates publicly—and they do. Their support can be quite effective, whether formal, informal, public or private.
Moreover, while the DNC and the RNC are expected to remain neutral in presidential primaries, past behavior suggests that their formal neutrality does not prevent informal activity to help or undermine specific candidates. In 2016, for example, media reports revealing internal DNC communications exposed by Wikileaks demonstrated that the DNC was actively supporting then-Senator Hillary Clinton against Sanders. This led DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign from her post.
In addition, the DNC’s nominating procedures at the time, which gave a powerful role to party officials as so-called “superdelegates,” also gave Clinton an edge over Sanders. (The DNC has since weakened superdelegates.) Like DNC leaders anxious about a Sanders nomination in 2016, RNC leaders are now known to have discussed ways to block Trump’s nomination at that time. Indeed, even after Trump’s nomination, they considered how to replace him with vice presidential nominee Mike Pence.
2016 vs. 2020
Third, there are analytically useful similarities and differences between 2016 and 2020. Broadly speaking, both election cycles saw competition between establishment and populist candidates and establishment fear that populists could doom their party to defeat. More narrowly, Republicans (in 2016) and Democrats (in 2020) initially had a very large number of candidates, with the other party consolidating fairly quickly around a presumptive nominee (despite Sanders’ persistence in 2016).
Notwithstanding these general similarities, there are also critical differences. One is that while Trump was anathema to many establishment Republicans in 2016, and prompted prominent “never Trump” Republicans to leave the party and in some cases to declare their support for Hillary Clinton, he now enjoys quite high support among (remaining) Republicans, with relatively high levels of Republican enthusiasm about the election too.
Another—also favorable to Trump—is that while Donald Trump was the anti-establishment outsider in 2016, he is now de facto within the Republican establishment, faces no meaningful opposition inside the party, and will have the RNC’s full support during the campaign.
On the Democratic side, Sanders is in a stronger position than he was in 2016. In 2020, he spent a few weeks as the apparent front-runner in the Democratic primaries, a status he never held in 2016, and could benefit from the Democrats’ post-2016 decision to weaken the influence of DNC superdelegates in the nominating process.
No less important, populist anger among Democrats seems to be growing, with many (especially younger) Democratic voters resenting establishment efforts to contain their candidates and constrain their policy agenda. This is one reason that some high-profile forecasts point toward Democrats selecting their candidate only at the party’s convention this summer, with neither Biden nor Sanders winning a majority of delegates before that.
For his part, Biden enjoys the advantages of widespread establishment support despite the fragmented Democratic field prior to Super Tuesday—and he has secured that support in early March. This is a stark contrast to Trump in 2016. On top of this, Sanders has suggested publicly that he will yield the nomination to Biden at the Democratic party convention if Biden has more delegates, even if Biden does not have a majority. Finally, if billionaire Michael Bloomberg really means that he will keep working to defeat Trump after dropping out of the race, his organization and financial support could help Biden a great deal.
Moreover, while Biden is now an establishment figure, he was in his own way a populist before becoming a part of the establishment; when Biden ran for president in 1988, he left the contest after revelations that he had borrowed (populist) language from a British Labour Party leader’s speech. Biden’s ability to connect to these angry voters, including perhaps some who voted for Trump and have become disaffected, is why many see him as a real threat to Trump in November.
Taking all of this into account—and considering other factors like the coronavirus outbreak, which President Trump has struggled somewhat in managing, its growing economic impact, and the many unknowable developments of the next several months—America’s presidential election looks set to be competitive and unpredictable, much like the 2016 race. For anyone following U.S. politics, the next eight months seem likely to be a dynamic and dramatic period.