Two weeks ago, a poll by Monmouth University showed that Joe Biden had fallen to third place in Virginia — with Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg tied for the lead.
A week ago, a poll by Data for Progress showed that Sanders had pulled out to a 9 percentage-point lead.
Both polls showed Biden had sunk to 18% and 19%, half of what the former vice president was polling in the state when he entered the race last year. That was then. This is now. On Tuesday, Biden won a crushing victory in Virginia, taking 54% of the vote to 23% for Sanders, just under 11% for Elizabeth Warren and 9.5% for Bloomberg.
What changed? Well, a lot. First, the reality began to set in that Sanders seemed to have the clearest path to the Democratic nomination as the rest of the field splintered. Then four things happened in quick succession: Biden had a strong debate, the always-friendly state of South Carolina delivered an unexpected blowout, which hastened the departure of three rivals. Then, finally, a wave of endorsements started rolling in – followed by actual voters themselves.
Here’s the inconvenient math for Sanders: In the first four states to vote this year, Sanders consistently ran behind his vote share from four years ago. Sanders was the putative front-runner only because there were so many other candidates splitting the rest of the vote. Sanders has a sturdy base — but also potentially a ceiling. As the field narrows, Sanders’ difficulties in expanding that base become more pronounced. Virginia is a prime example of that. The pre-primary poll that showed Sanders leading Virginia put him at 28%. That’s reasonably close to what he wound up getting. The difference is that other voters rapidly consolidated behind Biden in the closing days. Virginia wound up just like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in this way: Sanders got a smaller share of the vote in 2020 than he did four years ago, when he lost 64% to 35% to Hillary Clinton.
The magnitude of Biden’s win in Virginia will surely shock a lot of more-liberal voters who have been energetically debating the merits of Sanders vs. Warren vs. anyone other than the more centrist candidates. Shakespeare’s Hamlet told his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare the political analyst might amend that to say: There’s more to the Democratic Party than is in your social media feed. And on Tuesday, many of those people outside the Twitterverse voted. Some observations:
1. Not only was Biden’s margin wide, his vote was geographically and demographically broad. Biden won virtually everywhere — suburbs, central cities, rural areas. That’s a hard trick to pull off in a multi-candidate primary. The African-American vote certainly helped Biden in some places but he also won by wide margins in overwhelmingly white counties in rural Virginia. If you’re looking for the candidate with the most diverse coalition, on Tuesday in Virginia, that candidate was Biden, not Sanders.
2. Sanders did not expand his base. Sanders won only three localities — the college towns of Harrisonburg and Charlottesville plus Floyd County. Montgomery County is a good place to look at how much Sanders was unable to grow his vote. Four years ago, Sanders won 5,090 votes in Montgomery County — which accounted for 59% of the vote there. This year, Sanders won just two more votes there — 5,092 — but this time it was only good enough for 35.5% of the vote to Biden’s 39%. (If you’re inclined to compare Biden to Clinton, she won 3,507 votes in Montgomery County in what was essentially a two-way race. Biden took 5,560 in a multi-candidate field, which suggests that he’s a lot stronger than she ever was.) Floyd County is another useful place to study Sanders’ decline. Four years ago, he won 936 votes, which accounted for an astounding 70% of the vote. This year, he polled just 610 votes in Floyd, which amounted to 41% of the vote. Sanders has declared that a massive turnout is necessary to defeat Donald Trump, but there was no sign of that turnout for him Tuesday in Virginia. He picked up only 29,178 votes from four years ago while Biden ran 199,498 votes ahead of Clinton’s winning 2016 tally.
3. It’s hard for anyone to win the Democratic nomination without strong African-American support. Biden’s biggest numbers came in localities with large numbers of black voters. He took 77.5% in Sussex County and 74% in Petersburg (even though that city’s African-American state legislator endorsed Bloomberg). In Roanoke, where Biden took 51%, his strongest numbers came from precincts in African-American neighborhoods. He took almost 75% in Eureka Park, 70.5% in Peters Creek and 67% in Lincoln Terrace. Sanders has better states ahead of him, but he’s got a hard road if he can’t make inroads into one of the party’s most important constituencies.
4. Bloomberg is toast. At last report, the former New York mayor had spent more than $505 million in an unprecedented advertising campaign nationwide. He invested money everywhere, but invested a lot of personal time in Virginia — making seven visits to the state. He had more staff on the ground than anyone else; he was the only candidate with storefront offices in Roanoke and Danville, for instance. He even picked up some important endorsements, such as Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander and Del. Laschrecse Aird of Petersburg. All that bought him was a distant fourth place fourth-place finish. There’s really no other way to describe this than as an utter failure. If Bloomberg can’t win here, where can he win? More importantly, he finished below the 15% threshold for delegates here. The only place where Bloomberg looked strong Tuesday was the territory of American Samoa. It will be hard to execute his strategy of trying to win at a contested convention without a big bloc of delegates. If Bloomberg is as data-driven as he claims, he’ll be gone soon — which will further help Biden consolidate support.
5. Warren’s showing was weak, too. The website Politico quipped that “Elizabeth Warren can win debates, but not states.” Even her home state of Massachusetts wasn’t assured for her. In Virginia, Warren finished well below the threshold for winning any delegates —which also complicates her strategy of holding out to be a compromise candidate. Her third-place finish here was actually better than in many other states where she finished fourth.
It looks like this is a two-man race, in all senses of that phrase.