(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden’s newfound momentum could bring him an insurmountable lead in delegates by mid-March, leaving Bernie Sanders with little power to stop the former vice president from becoming the 2020 Democratic nominee for president.
Buoyed by primary wins on Super Tuesday, Biden’s now well-positioned to extend his delegate advantage over Sanders at the six nominating contests to be held on Tuesday and from some or all of the four states that vote a week later.
A strong showing this week raises the prospects for Biden to be in the lead for good on March 17, when 577 delegates -- about 43% of Super Tuesday’s total -- will be awarded.
Biden’s comeback has made the potential for a brokered convention recede significantly unless he suffers a major misstep. And even if Biden doesn’t get to the nominating convention in Milwaukee with enough delegates to win on the first ballot, the 771 superdelegates -- made up of party leaders, many of whom have already endorsed him -- would most likely push him over the line on the second ballot.
Sanders would have to win 63% of the delegates available on Tuesday to catch up with Biden’s 91-delegate lead. Failing that, the math only gets tougher with each round of primaries, as fewer delegates are available and rank-and-file party voters tend to rally around the front-runner.
The map looks inhospitable to Sanders on March 17, when Ohio, Illinois, Arizona and Florida -- all states that the candidate lost to Hillary Clinton in his 2016 bid -- hold Democratic primaries.
Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters prefer now prefer Biden by a 16 percentage-point margin -- 52% to 36% for Sanders -- a CNN national poll released Monday found. Biden’s favorability rating rose nine points from December to 48%, while Sanders registered his highest unfavorability rating in CNN polling dating back to 2015: 52% hold an unfavorable view of him, up from 44% in December.
For Tuesday, Michigan is the big delegate prize. A win there would cement Biden’s front-runner status and may, depending on how the votes are split, give him more delegates than Sanders earns up in the three states where he’s poised to do well: North Dakota, Washington state and Idaho.
Sanders hopes to repeat his 2016 Michigan upset of Clinton with a message about a rigged economy and unfair trade deals. Biden, meanwhile, is wooing the African-American vote, as he has successfully in the South, and arguing that Sanders would rid union workers of their prized health care benefits with his Medicare for All program.
The two campaigns spent a combined $2 million in television and radio advertising in Michigan last week. Sanders also campaigned in the state for much of the weekend, including a rally on Sunday with Jesse Jackson Sr and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Ann Arbor.
“Michigan is really important,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic delegate counter who worked for Sanders in 2016. “Bernie’s victory there last time was an incredible moment in the process.”
But Michigan might not have the advantages for Sanders that it did four years ago, said Devine. Then, with Michigan holding its primary without any other states competing for attention, the campaign spent three weeks focused on Michigan.
With Sanders competitive in Idaho, Washington state and North Dakota, and Biden favored in Mississippi, Missouri is the other hotly contested state this week, where the campaigns have spent $1.1 million.
Sanders canceled a visit to Mississippi last week, all but conceding defeat in the state with the highest African-American population. Biden had a 48-point lead over Sanders in neighboring Alabama last week.
The senator’s Michigan stump speech featured persistent attacks on Biden’s trade record in a state that’s lost nearly 250,000 manufacturing jobs over the last two decades.
‘Terrible Trade Deals’
“Michigan was decimated by terrible, terrible trade deals,” Sanders told MSNBC last week. “I walked the picket lines against NAFTA. I went to Mexico to see what NAFTA would do. Joe voted for those terrible agreements.”
A Detroit Free Press poll Monday showed Biden leading Sanders in Michigan, 51% to 27%, with a 4.9-point margin of error.
The survey showed Sanders with a 10-point lead among voters under age 50. But Biden leads by 51 points among older voters, and has reversed the demographic rifts that helped Sanders win the state in 2016. Biden leads inside and outside the Detroit metropolitan area, and among white and black voters.
Clinton had a 21-point lead in Michigan before Sanders’s 2016 upset. In that vote, he did better than expected with African-American voters in the Detroit area and won the backing of 62% of white men.
Devine said Sanders could pull it off again if he’s able to bring in new voters -- or win over the independents who helped carry the state, narrowly, for Donald Trump in 2016. Michigan has an open primary, meaning voters can switch parties on election day. Sanders has shown some growth in his base, especially with Latino voters.
Biden isn’t taking Michigan for granted. He kept up the drumbeat of endorsement announcements that preceded his recent primary wins.
In Michigan, he picked up support from Representatives Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, two freshmen women representing suburban districts, and Brenda Lawrence, whose district includes parts of Detroit and its northern suburbs. He also named Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as co-chair of his national campaign.
Biden also picked up key endorsements on Sunday from California Senator and former 2020 candidate Kamala Harris and on Monday from another former rival for the nomination, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
A little more than a week ago, it seemed that Biden’s best-case scenario for the nomination would have to come through maneuvering at the Democratic National Convention.
But then he won South Carolina on Feb. 29 by a wider margin than expected and followed it up by winning 10 Super Tuesday states on March 3. Almost 11 months after jumping into the race, he’s consolidated the support of the moderate wing of the party and become the clear establishment favorite.
Looking ahead to March 17, Arizona and Florida have some of the largest populations of retirement-age people in the country, a group that’s consistently favored Biden but has been cool toward Sanders.
“To his credit and I wish we could do better, Joe Biden is doing well with people 65 and older. We’re not,” Sanders said. In an attempt to reverse the trend, Sanders has sharpened his attacks recently on Biden’s past expressions of willingness to cut Social Security.
One advertisement running in Florida uses Biden’s own words, albeit from 1995. “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” Biden said in a Senate floor speech arguing for a balanced budget amendment. Sanders then says, “We’re not going to cut Social Security. We’re going to expand benefits.”
The April 28 primary of six northeastern corridor states could be the final blow to Sanders. It’s been dubbed the “Acela Primary,” after the Amtrak line, and will features contests in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland -- plus Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Sanders lost five of those states in 2016, and Clinton picked up 11 delegates from the state she lost, Rhode Island, helping her to clinch the nomination.
Still, Sanders is projecting optimism, betting that a groundswell of young supporters can carry him to victory despite underwhelming turnout in primaries so far. Exit polls on Super Tuesday states showed that while youth voting increased from 2016, turnout among older voters rose more.
“We’re a few votes behind Joe Biden,” Sanders said last week. “And I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
“We’ve got a very good shot to win this.”
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Joe Biden on March 4.)
(Updates with Detroit Free Press poll in 17th paragraph.)
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