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Why Sanders' uphill battle gets steeper as six states vote on Tuesday

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Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Detroit, Mich., on
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Detroit, Mich., on March 6, 2020.   -   Copyright  Jeff Kowalsky AFP - Getty Images
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It's not Super Tuesday, but there are six more Democratic contests coming up on Tuesday. Joe Biden comes to them with a lead over Bernie Sanders in the overall delegate count, thanks to his victories in 10 states last week.

Now, Biden has an opportunity to build on his advantage, while Sanders is desperately seeking to put some headline-grabbing wins on the board. Here's my look at the state of play in Tuesday's battlegrounds:

1. Michigan

Delegates: 125. Type of election: Primary

The most symbolically important contest of the day. Sanders won here in 2016 and is pushing hard for a repeat performance.

On the heels of a disastrous Super Tuesday, he badly needs to post a victory in a big state like Michigan to prove that he's still a contender. Conversely, a Biden breakthrough in a state that resisted Hillary Clinton in both the primary and general elections would make a powerful statement.

A recent poll has Biden ahead by 7 points, although Sanders' loyalists are quick to note that pre-primary polling also put Clinton ahead in 2016.

Of more concern for Sanders is his support among white voters without a college degree — a big chunk of Michigan's Democratic electorate. In '16, he won these voters by 15 points in Michigan, key to his overall victory. But in contests so far this year, Sanders hasn't been doing as well with noncollege whites. Last Tuesday in Minnesota, for instance, he lost them by 12 points to Biden.

Add in Sanders' continuing struggle to attract support from African Americans — about 20 percent of Michigan's primary electorate — and there are some worrying signs for him in what could amount to a must-win state.

2. Washington

Delegates: 89. Type of election: Primary

The single most important fact about this contest is that it is a primary, and not a caucus. It matters because Sanders tends to excel in caucus states, with their narrower voting universes, where the most committed activists hold disproportionate sway.

Washington was a caucus state in 2016, and Sanders romped to a 73-27 percent win over Clinton, good for sizable delegate haul. But the state Democratic Party decided to switch to a primary this year — and it looks like a big problem for Sanders.

Consider what happened last Tuesday in Minnesota, another state that made the switch to a primary this year. In '16, Sanders rolled up 62 percent in Minnesota's caucuses; but facing a primary electorate this time around, he lost to Biden by 9 points. Notably, Washington also held a nonbinding presidential primary in '16, two months after its caucuses. In that primary, Sanders actually lost to Clinton by 5 points. It didn't count for any delegates, but that result is worth recalling now.

Even if Sanders wins Washington's primary, his margin will likely be much narrower than his caucus rout four years ago. And that means that even in victory, his net delegate haul here will be severely reduced, something Sanders can ill-afford now that he's playing catch-up against Biden.

3. Missouri

Delegates: 68. Type of election: Primary

Just two-tenths of a point separated Sanders from victory here in 2016, but now Missouri looms as a big question mark. In other contests so far, Sanders hasn't been performing as well as he did in '16 among blue collar and rural white voters, a significant component of the electorate. For that matter, Sanders also ran particularly well with white college graduates here in '16, a group that surged strongly to Biden on Super Tuesday.

Sanders will need deep support from white voters in Missouri to make up for an expected lopsided loss with black voters, who should account for about 20 percent of the primary electorate. Sanders notched just over 30 percent of the black vote in Missouri in '16, better than his performance in Deep South states but still a major problem for him.

In the last week, Biden has loaded up on endorsements from the state's political class. A solid Biden win here would go a long way toward making Tuesday a big night for him.

4. North Dakota

Delegates: 14. Type of election: Firehouse caucus

What is a firehouse caucus? It's not a quite a primary, but it's pretty close.

It's run by the state political party, not the state (which administers traditional primaries), and allows voters to show up at party-designated polling site during an eight-hour window and to cast ballots. The hours are shorter and there aren't nearly as many voting locations as in a primary, but otherwise the procedure is basically the same.

What that adds up to is a headache for Sanders, since North Dakota has previously held caucuses, the type of contest best suited for Sanders. In 2016, he racked up a 38-point win over Clinton here. The new process should erode that advantage, though it's not clear to what degree.

5. Idaho

Delegates: 20. Type of election: Primary

Here it is again: another state where Sanders dominated caucuses in 2016 that has switched to a primary this time around. Four years ago, Sanders earned nearly 80 percent in Idaho's caucuses. It's hard to see him getting close to that in a primary. Could he still win the state? It's anyone's guess, but if the contest is even close, no one will net a significant number of delegates out of this state.

6. Mississippi

Delegates: 36. Type of election: Primary

It's a small state, but it may end up being more consequential than any other state on Tuesday night. The reason: Biden should run up the score here, massively. He's been crushing Sanders among black voters, and black voters should make up around 70 percent of Mississippi's Democratic primary electorate — the largest share of any state.

In 2016, this state was an absolute disaster for Sanders, who lost it 83-16 percent to Clinton. Just last week, he was routed 63-16 percent in next-door Alabama. There's every reason to believe that Sanders is in for more of the same here on Tuesday. And that would mean that Biden would take the vast majority of the state's delegates.

In other words, it's possible that Sanders could narrowly win all the other states on Tuesday and still have his net delegate gain from them erased by Biden's Mississippi landslide.