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Super Tuesday will test the Democratic moderates' great gamble

Over the last 48 hours, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have dropped out of the Democratic presidential race, endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, and kicked off a spate of hand-wringing over the apparently coalescing moderate vote. Klobuchar joined Biden onstage Monday night in Dallas to announce her backing, the same night Buttigieg announced his support. Biden also rolled out endorsements Monday from a bevy of establishment Democratic figures including Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and former Senate majority leader; Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and longtime supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton; and Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser for President Barack Obama. The flurry of endorsements right before Super Tuesday served to cement the narrative that Biden is the last, best hope for the party’s moderate wing — and seemed to have been spurred largely by a specific fear of Bernie Sanders, the self-avowed democratic socialist senator from Vermont, who has seized frontrunner status in the Democratic primary thus far.

Biden, a big chunk of moderate voters and politicians seem to believe, serves as the best chance to deny Sanders the nomination by offering a landing spot for those who believe Sanders is too radical. Though both Klobuchar and Buttigieg sparred with Biden at the debates, they are far closer to him ideologically than they are with Sanders, especially when it comes to major issues like Medicare-for-All. And after Biden’s mammoth margin of victory in South Carolina — he won by 28% overall, and won 61% of Black voters — it was decided that only Biden had a viable path forward in the primary’s moderate lane.

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Biden’s popularity with Black voters in particular — which perhaps should be credited more to his past work, particularly as Obama’s vice president, than his more recent statements — offers him a way to win in many other Southern states with similar demographics to South Carolina. Several will vote on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. The gamble for Buttigieg and Klobuchar appears to be that their early exits from the 2020 race will give Biden the edge over Sanders in time for delegate-rich Super Tuesday, if enough of their supporters switch to backing the former vice president.

Sanders himself discussed this great moderate gamble at a press conference Monday. “Look, it is no secret — I mean, The Washington Post has 16 articles a day on this. That there’s a massive effort trying to stop Bernie Sanders,” he said. “The corporate establishment is coming together. The political establishment is coming together. And they will do everything.” The Super Tuesday timing is no coincidence; it’s entirely possible that if Buttigieg and Klobuchar had stayed in the race and split the moderate vote, Sanders could have attained an insurmountable delegate advantage by Tuesday’s end to effectively end the primary.

In 2016, Sanders also faced steep headwinds among Black voters in the South; he later said that he got “murdered” there after being trounced by Hillary Clinton throughout the region. This time around, that same dynamic appears likely to recur, despite Sanders’s improved outreach to Black and brown voters. Biden is currently favored in Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma in the FiveThirtyEight polling model.

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The key difference in 2020, though, is that Sanders appears likely to win big in California and has a slim lead in Texas — the two Super Tuesday states that award the most delegates. If Black voters are giving Biden the edge in the South, then Latino voters seem to be doing the work for Sanders.

On Monday, UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country, released a poll of Latino voters in both California and Texas that shows them driven first and foremost by concerns about health care. In both states, voters listed health care as their top concern, followed closely by housing costs. Sanders has made free universal health care the core of his campaign through his signature Medicare-for-All initiative, and he has railed against the existence of billionaires when 18 million families spend more than half of their income on housing.

In California, Latino voters make up 39% of the electorate. In Texas, the number is 37.6%.

Still, Sanders’s gains in California may end up being nullified by the moderates dropping out and endorsing Biden. In many polls before Buttigieg and Klobuchar exited the race, Sanders and Biden were often the only candidates to reach above 15% support, the threshold at which delegates are awarded in the Golden State. That meant that Sanders could have potentially taken home a majority share of the available delegates, even if his total support was only in the plurality range of 30-40%.

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With Klobuchar and Buttigieg gone now, chances are higher that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who will be on the ballot Tuesday for the first time this cycle, will be able to reach the 15% threshold and claim delegates for themselves. The same dynamic holds in primaries around the country; fewer candidates means there are more votes up for grabs for Bloomberg and Warren just as there are for Sanders and Biden. And Klobuchar and Buttigieg may have dropped out too close to Super Tuesday to entirely swing their entire bases of support over to Biden; millions of early votes have already been cast around the country, particularly in top prize California, and people who voted early for candidates who have since dropped out of the race don’t get a do-over.

Broadly, the fact that Bloomberg and Warren are still in the race makes it difficult to predict how things will play out. Though Biden and Sanders appear dominant, both Warren and Bloomberg could turn out to be dark horse contenders, at least when it comes to snagging some delegates. Warren is competitive in her home state of Massachusetts, which votes Tuesday, while Bloomberg’s $500 million in ad spending ought to net him some support in the coming races.

If one or both eventually does drop out, polling shows that a majority of Warren supporters would switch to Sanders, while Bloomberg voters prefer Biden. Whichever of the two drops out first could deal a significant blow to the candidate their voters favor less. At the moment, though, they’re primarily factors muddying the calculations of the moderates’ big gamble.