The Biden comeback: looking back on the Democratic primary

A contested convention?
Going into the South Carolina primary election, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to be a long shot to win the Democratic nomination for president. Despite leading in national polls for most of the primary, Biden placed fourth in the Iowa caucus, fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and second in the Nevada caucus. Biden was competing for the moderate vote with other center-left candidates including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), benefiting from strong finishes in the first three states and a progressive lane that was less crowded than the moderate lane, surged ahead of Biden in national polls.

Toward the end of March, political commentators began to suggest no candidate would reach the 1,991 delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot. In that event, the Democratic Party would hold a contested convention, during which it would be possible for candidates to win even if they were not leading in the delegate count. A number of Democratic superdelegates stated that they would attempt to hand the nomination to someone other than Sanders if he was the delegate leader going into a contested convention.

However, by early March, Biden seemed like the frontrunner to win the nomination, barring a last-minute resurgence from Sanders. Biden’s comeback, while remarkable, was weeks in the making.

Endorsement momentum
Biden’s rebound began in the buildup to the South Carolina primary. Biden led the South Carolina polls throughout the primary, often by double digits. However, as February progressed, his lead began to shrink—although Sanders did not surpass Biden at any point in the state’s Real Clear Politics polling average. Then, just three days prior to the primary, Biden gained a key endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC-6). In addition to having a great deal of sway in South Carolina politics, Clyburn is the House Majority Whip and highest-ranking African American member of Congress. Biden’s lead days before the South Carolina primary grew substantially, in part due to Clyburn’s endorsement.

Biden received a decisive 48.7% of the vote in South Carolina, while Sanders received 19.8%. Biden also won every county in the state. This primary interrupted a series of Sanders victories throughout February, and Biden’s win helped quell fears that his campaign did not have a path towards the nomination.

Adding to Biden’s momentum was a set of endorsements from former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. On Sunday, March 2—two days before over a third of delegates would be allocated on Super Tuesday—Buttigieg announced that he was leaving the 2020 race. The next day, Klobuchar announced that she was dropping out, and Klobuchar and Buttigieg both endorsed Biden at separate events. Former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke also endorsed Biden the day before Super Tuesday. This consolidation of center-left support behind Biden effectively left just one moderate competitor: Bloomberg.

A strong finish on Super Tuesday
Biden’s performance on Super Tuesday provided additional energy to his campaign. Biden won ten states, while Sanders won four. Biden took several southern states, including Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama, with a substantial lead early in the night. Although Sanders won California, the most populous state in the country, Biden won the most delegates of the night by a comfortable margin.

Despite his almost $600 million in self-funded spending, Bloomberg did not win any Super Tuesday states. Bloomberg’s campaign strategy was to forgo the first four primary states and focus his efforts largely on Super Tuesday, so this was a particularly stark loss for his campaign. Bloomberg decided to drop out and endorse Biden the next day. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also dropped out after Super Tuesday but chose not to endorse Sanders or Biden.

On the surface, Warren leaving the race may seem like it would have benefitted Sanders, given that the two candidates align on many policy issues. However, Warren’s supporters do not overwhelmingly choose Sanders as their second choice. And one of the demographic groups for which Warren polled best—college-educated white women—was one of Sanders’ lowest-polling demographics.

After Super Tuesday, it became clear that the Democratic primary would come down to two candidates: Biden and Sanders.
Biden victories continue amid COVID-19
A great deal was resting on the Michigan primary. During the 2016 primary, Sanders upset former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Michigan. Another victory for Sanders in the state could have helped demonstrate his credentials with working-class voters, as well as his ability to win a key swing state in the general election. However, Biden finished with 52.9% of the vote, dealing a blow to the Sanders campaign’s hopes for a last-minute resurgence.

In mid-March, news of the Democratic primary began to take a backseat to stories about the COVID-19 outbreak in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 70 cases of the novel coronavirus in the US in the beginning of March, but over 7,000 cases by mid-March. States including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Connecticut, and Ohio decided to delay their primary elections due to COVID-19. The outbreak also complicated the logistics of running presidential campaigns; for instance, Biden and Sanders both have canceled rallies due to COVID-19.

At the first one-on-one debate between Biden and Sanders, both candidates argued that the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrated the importance of their message. Biden made the case that the outbreak demanded “results, not a revolution.” On the other hand, Sanders argued that COVID-19 exposes deeper issues in the US, such as the need for expanded health care.

Ultimately, Biden continued his series of victories in the midst of the outbreak. On March 17, Biden swept all three states that held primaries: Florida, Illinois, and Arizona. As March comes to a close, Biden is leading substantially in the delegate count and has all but secured his position as the eventual nominee.To learn more about the 2020 Democratic primary and the effect of COVID-19 on the race, download National Journal’s 2020 Election Toolbox and the 2020 Democratic primary delegate tracker.