In the time of span of 72 hours, between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, establishment Democrats rushed to consolidate behind former Vice President Joe Biden in a transparent effort to thwart the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The machinations started on Saturday, only minutes after polls closed in the Palmetto State. Biden, who had flopped in the first three nominating contests, was declared the instantaneous winner after exit polls showed a rout, thanks to strong support from black voters.
Even though the margin of victory remained unknown for hours, many in the media and pundit class jumped to claim South Carolina had resuscitated the former vice president’s hopes for the nomination. None espoused that argument more so than Terry McAullife, a former governor of Virginia and one time chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Shortly after South Carolina was called, McAullife appeared on CNN, where he serves as a political commentator, to discuss the results. Instead of offering insight, however, the former governor took the opportunity to endorse Biden live on the air.
“I’ve thought long and hard about this,” McAullife told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “For me it’s an electability issue … I’m going all in on Joe Biden, I think he has the best shot of beating [President] Donald Trump.”
The endorsement was not totally unexpected, as McAullife’s wife was already a well known bundler for the former vice president. It did, however, strike many as overly partisan, especially given that McAullife also used the live-TV endorsement to urge Democrats to consolidate behind Biden.
“I’m hoping, tomorrow actually, some of the candidates decide to get out,” McAullife said, right after having suggested Sanders would cripple down ballot Democrats. “If you do not have a pathway, let[‘s] not wait until Super Tuesday.”
When pressed as to whom he meant, the former governor specifically confessed he was talking about Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“I don’t want to tell people they should get out, because they’ve worked for a year,” McAullife said. They’ve gotten a lot of support, but I think Pete [Buttigieg] and Amy [Klobuchar] and Tom Steyer need to make that decision for themselves.”
Even as the former governor spoke, the Democtat field was already shrinking. Steyer, who had poured more than $252 million into his underdog campaign, was informing staffers of his decision to exit the race after placing third in South Carolina.
Neither Steyer’s exit nor McAullife’s endorsement surprised many, but it did signal what lay ahead.
First, Biden’s looming cash crunch was likely to disappear thanks to McAullife’s fundraising prowess, honed during his tenure at the helm of the DNC. Second, and more importantly, McAullife’s backing ensured that Biden no longer had to fear losing Virginia, a state both Sanders and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg had high hopes for on Super Tuesday. The latter seemed to be proven when several high-ranking Virginia officials announced their backing of Biden on Saturday night, including Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), a power broker within the commonwealth’s black community.
With Virginia appearing to be a lock and money no longer a problem, other establishment Democrats began to fall in line behind Biden. Most notably, Sunday saw former DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announce her endorsement. Wasserman Schultz, apart from being a Florida congresswoman, had infamously been forced to resign her DNC post after it was revealed she worked to the benefit of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries.
The list of endorsements grew larger on Monday with the addition of former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid’s endorsement was perplexing, since he had pointedly refused to support Biden during his own state’s presidential caucuses two weeks earlier.
All told, prior to South Carolina, Biden only had the backing of one high-profile member of the establishment, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC). After winning the Palmetto State’s primary, the former vice president found himself as the clear favorite among establishment Democrats.
While the endorsements were flooding in for Biden, something strange was happening among the candidates themselves. Buttigieg, who had shown every indication of remaining in the race through Super Tuesday, shocked many by exiting the race.
“Tonight I am making the difficult decision to suspend my campaign for the presidency,” Buttigieg told supporters on Sunday. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that we have a new Democratic president come January.”
The move came only hours after Buttigieg had spoken with two of the Democrat Party’s prior White House occupants. Earlier on Sunday, Buttigieg met with former President Jimmy Carter in Georgia. Although the confines of that meeting have not been made public, the former mayor was reportedly seeking counsel about whether he should stay in the race.
Later that same evening, Buttigieg took part in a phone call with former President Barack Obama. Also on the line was Biden, who lobbied for the former mayor’s endorsement, according to The New York Times.
“Obama did not specifically encourage Buttigieg to endorse Biden,” the Times reported. “But Obama did note that Buttigieg has considerable leverage at the moment and should think about how best to use it.”
Obama allegedly implored Buttigieg to consider that his endorsement “could reshape the Democratic primary … creating a more formidable centrist challenge to Mr. Sanders’ progressive movement.”
Buttigieg, for his part, seems to have agreed, but wanted some time to think through the decision. As the former South Bend mayor contemplated, Klobuchar opted to act. The senator, who was competing with Buttigieg and Biden to be the moderate alternative to Sanders, ended her campaign abruptly on Monday and endorsed the former vice president.
Klobuchar’s exit, which occurred directly after a campaign rally in Utah, took many by surprise, including top staffers. Confounding many is that Klobuchar, by her own admission, was focused on continuing her bid at least until after her home state of Minnesota voted on Super Tuesday.
In a conference call informing supporters of her departure, Klobuchar refused to provide a rationale for her departure or endorsement of the former vice president.
“I’ve been so proud that people have been willing to pitch in and help each other and so that’s why this is a really hard thing to do today,” the senator said on the call, before adding it was “best” for the country that she withdrew in favor of Biden.
After the call, the former vice president’s campaign announced that Klobuchar would appear at a rally with Biden in Texas later that night. Shortly after the news broke, Buttigieg swiftly threw his support behind Biden and also jumped on a plane to the Lone Star State.
“I’m looking for a leader, I’m looking for a president, who will draw out what’s best in each of us,” the former South Bend mayor said in Texas on Monday. “We have found that leader in vice president, soon-to-be president, Joe Biden.”
Joining Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden on the stage in Texas was former congressman Beto O’Rourke. The failed Senate and presidential candidate was there to offer a last-minute endorsement of Biden.
The convenient timing of all three endorsements sparked speculation that someone high up within the Democrat establishment had arranged for the field to coalesce behind Biden. Many believe that figure is none other than Obama himself, especially given the former president’s call with Buttigieg and his ties to O’Rourke.
Warren Refuses to Yield
As the establishment was orchestrating a united front behind Biden, Sanders was facing the opposite predicament on the left.
Despite winning the first three nominating contests, Sanders faced a crushing defeat in South Carolina on Saturday. His long-standing inability to connect with black voters, an increasingly vital part of the Democrats’ constituency, seemed to only accentuate the fears many held about his candidacy.
Posing a bigger problem, at least in the short-term, for Sanders was the fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was refusing to yield the progressive lane. Since jumping into the race, Warren had attempted to brand herself as a toned-down version of Sanders. Instead of promising a full-blown political revolution, like the Vermont septuagenarian, Warren vowed to bring radical economic change—while simultaneously pledging an affinity for capitalism.
“Inequality is going to break this country. We can’t sustain a democracy, we cannot sustain an America of opportunity with growing inequality,” Warren told MSNBC in April 2019. “We’ve got to have some great ideas to push back, big ideas to push back against it, big structural change.”
The differences, though, were mostly of style. In terms of policy, the two were nearly indistinguishable. On the campaign trail, both thundered about the need for a Green New Deal, some version of Medicare for All, and a wealth tax.
Sanders, for his part, seemed to tolerate Warren’s presence in the contest until the shadow of a brokered convention began to loom. Earlier this year, when it became apparent the Democratic field was unlikely winnow, given the DNC’s proportional delegate allocation system, Sanders and Warren began to spar openly.
Warren irked Sanders’ base after refusing to drop out and back him prior to Super Tuesday. Sanders supporters, many of whom remain notoriously suspicious of the Democrat establishment given its overt attempts to quash their candidate in 2016, cried foul. While the Democrat elite appeared to deliver marching orders to back Biden, Warren stood defiant, remaining in the race, knowing that her presence would split progressive loyalties.
In January, Warren kicked off the brawl by accusing Sanders of stating, during a 2018 meeting, that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Sanders vigorously denied the allegation, claiming Warren had misremembered his remarks. Neither side was willing to back down from the version of events, leading to a heated confrontation after a Democratic presidential debate in Iowa.
The flare-up has only served to underscore the perception among the Sanders faithful that Warren holds personal ambition over progressive principles. That idea materialized during the 2016 primaries, when Warren appeared to side with establishment Democrats over her longtime friend.
Warren, in particular, refused to endorse Sanders over Clinton in 2016. The decision is credited by some to Clinton’s narrow victory in that year’s Massachusetts primary. The minuscule two percentage points that separated Clinton and Sanders in that race has led many a “Bernie Bro” to wonder if Warren’s intervention could have made a noticeable difference and perhaps changed the outcome of the 2016 nominating contest as a whole.
That history, coupled with Warren’s refusal to exit the 2020 race despite failing to win a single primary, has led some to question if the Massachusetts Democrat is in the race to win, build her own political stature, or assist the establishment in blocking a Sanders nomination. Those arguments bubbled over on Super Tuesday when Warren and Sanders split the progressive vote, allowing Biden to score plurality victories in key Super Tuesday states such as Texas, Massachusetts, Maine, and Minnesota.
The DNC Makes a Preemptive Strike
The Democrat establishment, perhaps sensing the oncoming complaints from Sanders supporters, appeared to launch a preemptive strike on Tuesday.
Just hours before polls closed, former interim-DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile lashed out when confronted during a Fox News appearance about claims the primary was being “rigged” against Sanders. Brazile, who infamously was caught feeding Clinton town hall questions during the 2016 primaries, told the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) “go to hell” for weighing in on the Democrat race.
“I want to talk to my Republicans,” Brazile stated. “First of all, stay the hell out of our race … and for people to use Russian talking points to sow division among Americans, that is stupid… go to hell!”
The former DNC chair proceeded to argue that “we’re not trying to prevent anyone from becoming the nominee.”
“If you have the delegates and win, you will win,” Brazile said. “This notion that somehow or another that Democrats are trying to put hurdles or roadblocks before one candidate, that’s stupid.”
“I know what’s going on,” she added, suggesting claims about the primary being “rigged” against Sanders are a talking point of both the GOP and Russia.
That narrative is currently serving as a firewall for the establishment. Instead of easing concerns of Sanders supporters, establishment Democrats easily dismiss them in the same fashion as Brazile, suggesting that progressives are repeating talking points cunningly crafted by the GOP and Russia.
Sanders allies have been anything but relieved by Brazile’s comments. Marianne Williamson, a one-time presidential contender turned Sanders-backer, openly claimed on Tuesday that Biden’s sudden rise was more of a “coup,” than a “resurrection.”
Biden’s Super Tuesday Blowout
With the establishment united behind his candidacy, Biden blew away the competition on Super Tuesday. The former vice president won resoundingly across the board, winning ten contests to only four for Sanders. The breadth of Biden’s victory was all the more astounding because of the shallow infrastructure he had in many of the states prior to the establishment coalescing.
In Virginia, where McAullife’s endorsement likely made a big impact, Biden carried every single county, save for one, despite only spending $233,000. Bloomberg, on the other hand, poured more than $18 million into the state but failed to meet the threshold required to capture a single delegate. Overall in the commonwealth, Biden ran more than 43 percentage points ahead of Bloomberg and at least 30 points ahead of Sanders. The results are even more impressive when taken within the context that Biden only made a handful of appearances in Virginia, having spent most of his time in South Carolina and the other early nominating contests since jumping into the race.
A similar story played out in Minnesota and Texas, where the last-minute endorsements from Klobuchar and O’Rourke helped swing the states to Biden. Exit polling shows that those who took part in early voting tended to favor Sanders, while those who cast ballots on the day were overwhelmingly in favor of the former vice president. That disparity has led some to argue that establishment Democrats disenfranchised thousands of citizens by pushing the field to consolidate and denying early voters a say in the primary contest.
The impact of consolidation was probably most noted in smaller Super Tuesday states, like Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Maine. In each of those, Biden scored easy victories, despite spending little time or money courting voters there.
Sanders Takes it in Stride
Sanders, admittedly aware of the efforts against him, is failing to fight back with a political vengeance so desperately desired by his most ardent supporters.
On Monday, when his rivals began dropping out and endorsing Biden, Sanders struck a lackadaisical tone, telling reporters that he was “not surprised” by the flood of endorsements for Biden.
“The economic establishment, Wall Street, and drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry, they don’t want me to win,” the senator told reporters. “Many of the establishment Democrats don’t want us to win.”
Even after his campaign was thwarted on Super Tuesday, Sanders seemed detached from the threat facing his campaign, yet acknowledged the organized effort to take him down.
On Wednesday, Sanders told reporters that Bloomberg’s departure from the race and subsequent endorsement of Biden confirmed suspicions the establishment was trying to stop his movement.
“I suspect we will see, you know, a lot of money coming into Biden’s campaign,” Sanders told the press, upon news of Bloomberg’s exit. “Probably a lot of negative ads attacking me. That’s what we’re taking on.”
Sander’s aloofness is nothing new. Although the senator fancies himself the leader of the movement, he has done little to fight the very political establishment standing in the way of his path to the presidency. It is a phenomenon causing some Sanders supporters to fear a repeat of 2016.
During that contentious primary campaign, the self-described Democrat socialist fought Clinton in the various primaries and caucuses across the country. Even though Sanders lambasted Clinton daily on the campaign trail as part of the failed status quo, he endorsed the former secretary of state, who, to this day, has continued to criticize her competitor.
Clinton offered a trove of political scandal, including the Uranium One dealings detailed in Clinton Cash—a 2015 book by Peter Schweizer, a senior contributor at Breitbart News. Questions surrounding the operations of the Clinton Foundation festered throughout the primary process, yet Sanders largely refused to weaponize them.
“I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States,” Sanders said at the time, demonstrating his willingness to consolidate the Democrat base and ignore the political red flags of his competitors.
Given his history, many fear Sanders will refuse to stand up to Biden in the same manner. Even Democrats admit that Biden provides no shortage of baggage. Nevertheless, Sanders has refused to take advantage of the controversies swirling around the former vice president, including his family’s shadowy business ventures pertaining to Hunter Biden. Instead, Sanders has discouraged his supporters for booing at the mention of Biden’s name and has referred to the former vice president, on more than one occasion, as a “decent guy.”
“And I mean this very sincerely, Joe Biden is a friend of mine,” Sanders told supporters during a recent rally in Minnesota. “I have known Joe for a long time.”
In the rare moments that Sanders has criticized Biden, it has usually been over policy, like the Iraq War or free trade—critiques that clearly had little impact on Super Tuesday voters.
What is more, Sanders has refused to issue any ultimatums, whether it be a third-party run or the outright refusal to endorse the eventual nominee. He has already promised to “be there” for Biden if he wins the nomination, once again bringing flashbacks of his decision to succumb to Clinton in 2016.
The Vermont senator has demonstrated that he is capable of upping his rhetoric when it comes to an opponent like Trump. In the past, Sanders has accused the president of being not only a racist, but also a sexist, fraud, and pathological liar.
When it comes to competitors on the left, however, Sanders has exhibited an unwillingness to fight—igniting fears that it will be all too easy for the Democrat establishment to steamroll his hopes of forging a political revolution yet again.