As Bernie Sanders moved into front-runner status over the past month, his campaign for the Democratic nomination naturally had sky-high expectations for Super Tuesday. In light of those hopes, he grievously underperformed. Joe Biden, whose campaign was deemed dead in the water as recently as last week, looks to have won 10 of the 14 states up for grabs on March 3. From here on out, in what has to all intents and purposes become a two-person race—Mike Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed Biden Wednesday morning, Elizabeth Warren will probably soon leave the race, and Tulsi Gabbard is largely an irrelevance—Biden is now clearly the front-runner.
But Sanders’s win in California, as well as in Colorado and Utah, building on his caucus victory in Nevada, complicates the simplistic narrative that so much of the punditocracy was keen to spin after the polls closed last night. And it suggests that at least in the West and Southwest, in areas of the country with a large Latino vote, and in cities with strong and progressive grassroots organizing efforts, Sanders remains the favored candidate.
Moreover, Sanders’s key policy proposals, especially Medicare for All, are now firmly embedded in the political consciousness of the Democratic Party. And Kaiser Family Foundation polling suggests that a slim majority of all American voters currently favor a universal health care system of some sort. In other words, Biden the person—the kindly, empathetic man whom people routinely say they can imagine sitting down and drinking a beer with—may have seized the Super Tuesday momentum, but to get to that point, the centrist coalition that propelled him to victory had to embrace many of the policy proposals that Sanders has been attempting to mainstream for decades.
It isn’t clear yet exactly how many pledged delegates Sanders won in the Golden State, but as of Wednesday afternoon, with 87 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders had 135 to Biden’s 83, out of more than 400 total. If that margin holds, Sanders will end up with roughly 100 more California delegates than Biden. By contrast, in Texas—a state that Sanders had hoped to win—Biden was ahead by only four. Biden may have gotten all the “victory” headlines, but if the narrowness of those Texas numbers holds, Sanders’s blowout win in the much smaller state of Colorado could largely cancel out Biden’s Texas victory, in terms of delegates. Meanwhile, the size of Sanders’s win in California will essentially neutralize Biden’s delegate lead over his rival in North Carolina, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
Sanders, who has worked for more than a year to build a robust grassroots movement across California, performed strongly in every urban region in the Golden State, beating out Biden, whose campaign has barely had a presence here, by nearly nine percentage points. In fact, out of all 58 counties in the state, Biden won only five.
In Los Angeles County, with 70 percent of the votes tallied, Sanders was ahead by 85,000 votes; in San Diego, by 15,000; even in Orange County—historically a conservative bastion—he was far out in front of Biden. He convincingly won San Francisco, Sacramento, and every other major urban hub.
In many parts of the country on Tuesday, Biden ended up with more votes than recent polls suggested was likely—almost certainly because Klobuchar and Buttigieg threw their support behind his candidacy after dropping out. In California, though, it was Sanders who outperformed most polls. In the days leading up to the vote, Project 538 calculated his average support at just below 32 percent. It looks like his vote total was closer to 34 percent.
None of this means that Sanders retains front-runner status, of course. Realistically, the momentum he gets out of California likely won’t be enough to carry him to the nomination. For while the Vermont senator could have squeezed out a delegate victory in a fractured race with multiple candidates competing for the middle ground, in a two-person race, particularly with the comeback-kid narrative now being spun for Biden, it’s far harder to see how Sanders threads that needle. Even adding in Warren’s vote, the Sanders-Warren total in most states that went to the polls yesterday fell somewhat shy of 50 percent. There’s no reason to think that fundamental calculus will change in Sanders’s favor.
But the huge Sanders delegate trawl from California can’t be ignored. In fact, at the very least it ought to be enough to give him the clout to significantly shape the Democratic Party’s platform heading into the November election, and to convince the party to truly address the concerns of his huge movement of young people and social justice activists. That means, in particular, addressing the issues that California voters and energized grassroots groups have been fighting for throughout the Trump presidency: immigrants’ rights, the environment, health care access, housing affordability, criminal justice reform, racial justice, women’s rights, and, most of all, a serious effort to rein in rampant economic inequality.
If Biden tries to marginalize those issues—if he pushes a milquetoast business-as-usual, “Let’s heal the country and forget about the horrors of the Trump years” package—he will risk disengaging the very voters he needs to come out in huge numbers, not just to win the presidency but to consolidate the 2018 congressional gains in California and elsewhere throughout the West and Southwest. He will also risk sapping progressive political energy in big metropolitan areas, where young activists have helped craft resistance to Trumpism from the first days of the real estate mogul’s term in office.
Don’t get me wrong: All the math coming out of Super Tuesday suggests that, nationally, Biden had a far better night than Sanders; and that in key swing states on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, voters broke late in the day for a candidate whom they came to view as the “safe” candidate, the man most likely both to beat Trump and to help the Democrats rack up congressional wins. But that same math suggests just how strongly Sanders’s message resonates among key sectors of the electorate, particularly out west.
Given that the Democrats turned Congress blue in 2018 partly as a result of huge Latino and youth voter turnouts in the Central Valley, Orange County, and other traditionally conservative regions of California—a turnout that flipped seven California districts from the GOP into the Democratic camp—their voter preferences can be ignored only at the party’s peril. If Biden does ultimately emerge as the nominee, he would be wise to harness the Sanders energy out west rather than try to neutralize it.