As political comebacks go, it was one of the most remarkable in American history.
Having run a lacklustre campaign since announcing his candidacy 11 months ago, Joe Biden surged to victory on Super Tuesday, winning states across the country and positioning himself as the undisputed moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders as Democrats choose their candidate to take on Donald Trump.
From the moments the polls closed on the east coast, it was evident that Joe Biden was poised to have a good night, clocking up decisive wins in Virginia and North Carolina, the third-largest state voting on Super Tuesday in terms of delegate counts.
As expected, he did well in racially diverse states in the south where Democratic voters tend to be more conservative, like Alabama and Tennessee. But he also won northeastern states like Massachusetts, beating Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in their New England back yard, and showing he can appeal to the kind of moderate, suburban Democratic voter who helped win back the House of Representatives for Democrats in the midterm election of 2018.
Biden’s political resurrection was a vindication of his campaign’s strategy. After a dire performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a much-needed second-place finish in Nevada, the Biden team chose to throw all their time and resources into last Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
While Biden's rivals campaigned in Super Tuesday states, Biden focused solely on South Carolina, campaigning there every day and investing his money in ads. The aim was not just to win the state, but win big. It worked. Boosted by the endorsement of prominent African-American Jim Clyburn, Biden's African-American support base delivered for him, helping him to win nearly 50 per cent of the vote. From there, the momentum snowballed into Super Tuesday. The decision by Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to suspend their campaigns and endorse Biden after South Carolina was decisive. A string of endorsements followed, including from former candidate Beto O'Rourke and party stalwarts like former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and veteran senator Harry Reid.
Biden's African-American support base delivered for him, helping him to win nearly 50 per cent of the vote
Biden’s Super Tuesday victory was also down to external factors. Michael Bloomberg’s failure to overcome poor debate performances, despite spending millions on ads, benefited Biden. Similarly, timing played a part. The winnowing down of the field came at just the right time for the former vice-president. Poll after poll had shown Democratic voters hopelessly divided between a field of candidates that was too big. Once the race began to narrow, and Biden was anointed the moderates’ choice, they ran with it, desperate to pick any candidate perceived as having the best chance to beat Trump. Sanders’s surprise surge in the early primaries may also have served to consolidate support behind whoever emerged as the most viable moderate candidate amid fears that a socialist candidate like him would deliver the presidency to Trump.
But despite Biden's strong night, it is still a two-person race. While Bloomberg is reported to have dropped out of the race, Warren and Tulsi Gabbard are still in the contest. The Democratic nomination is likely to come down to a battle between Sanders and Biden. Both are neck-and-neck in term of delegate counts.
While the Vermont senator looks on course to win California comfortably at the time of writing, there are worrying signs. The youth vote, which forms a large part of Sanders's support base, was down across the country on Tuesday. In some states, his vote share was lower than in 2016. In his home state of Vermont, he won only 52 per cent, down from 86 per cent in 2016. The states where he performed well – Colorado and California – had the highest proportion of early voting. Late-deciders in most states instead backed Biden – a trend that underlines the power of Biden's newfound momentum. States voting later in the calendar, like Georgia and Florida later this month, are also naturally more Biden-friendly territory.
Biden is not home and dry. The problems of his candidacy are there. His slow delivery and gaffes will continue
But Biden is by no means home and dry. The problems that marred his candidacy are still there. His slow delivery and gaffes will continue. Republicans are guaranteed to revive the controversy over his son Hunter's involvement with a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice-president which surfaced during the Trump impeachment. Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson has already penned a subpoena for documents related to the younger Biden.
The looming Sanders-Biden contest promises to get tetchy. Addressing supporters on Tuesday night, Sanders lost no time in indirectly attacking the new frontrunner, highlighting Biden's vote in support of the Iraq war, and his position on trade. Biden is also likely to return to his campaign message of recent days – voters want results not a revolution.
While a re-run of the Sanders-Clinton battle of 2016 may be on the cards, Biden is likely to argue that he can connect with the working-class white male voters that were turned off by Hillary Clinton and helped deliver the presidency to Trump in swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin in 2016.
A key test will be next week’s primary contest in Michigan. Sanders has been polling well there and beat Clinton easily in the 2016 primary. When the state swung for Trump, it underlined the Sanders argument that he would have been a better candidate to beat Trump. Should Biden win next week’s Michigan primary – and one poll on Wednesday suggests he may – then this would bolster Biden’s case that he is best-placed to beat Trump.
For many Democrats, the fact that the race has come down to two white septuagenarian men who in different ways both represent the past is depressing – though the fact that Bloomberg floundered is a comforting reminder that money can’t necessarily buy votes. Ultimately the late Biden bounce and high voter turnout show that Democratic voters want a candidate who can beat Donald Trump, whatever their shortcomings.