Underdog Season: Takeaways from Super Tuesday

Biden masterfully lowered expectations ... and then exceeded them (but then, it's like: what next?)

Publisher’s Riff

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With much fuller Super Tuesday results in, here are some quick thoughts breaking down some of the lessons learned from it.

First, here is what the Democratic presidential primary map looks like now per NY Times

Playing Underdog

Super Tuesday 2020 felt very much like the energy channeled during the Philadelphia Eagles remarkable 2017-2018 playoff season: lifetime Philly sports fans, notorious for their ride-or-die loyalty, passionately embraced an “underdog” label (wearing actual dog masks to personify it) that helped the Eagles power through the playoffs with a backup quarterback. Their was no open, public trash talk from players. Even fans muted confidence and stuck to their traditional cynicism and simply hoped for the best.

Joe Biden seemed to channel that same energy since before South Carolina. In this sense, his hometown Wilmington, DE, Philly-metro area roots showed. He visibly lowered expectations. He didn’t really trash talk the competition, and stayed focused, instead, on trash talking the current occupant of the White House. And, more importantly, he made his plays in South Carolina and in the 14 Super Tuesday states in teamwork fashion, tapping into rank-and-file Democratic Party networks, targeting delegate-rich Congressional districts, and promising along the way to help House and Senate candidates down ballot.

The Importance of Team Work

Super Tuesday was visibly a two-man bout. Bernie Sanders supporters, egged on by their candidate, will predictably frame this as “party insiders tipping the scales” or “rigging” the primary. That’s already happened. But, what it really happened was, simply, old fashioned party team dynamics at work. It’s how political parties work; clearly, Sanders, a longtime Independent, is still very new to that party despite the fact that he’s “caucused” with them for so long. Yet, he can’t expect to join a team, plan to use all of its resources and power for his own purpose and then immediately isolate himself within that team by constantly trashing it as the establishment - that’s not being a “team player” and that’s definitely not how institutions like political parties work. At some minimum, Sanders should have had a plan for how to connect with and partner with party leaders, Democratic colleagues in the Senate and House members with influence in their respective states on how to effectively engage the electorate. That didn’t happen in this case.

Sanders also failed to, and continues failing to, show love to the down-ballot. Biden consistently does this on the campaign trail and during stump speeches, hyping up the need for Democrats to maintain a hold on the House and reminding voters to help Democrats retake the Senate. Democrats currently in Congress and candidates with their sights on Capitol Hill hear that language and reciprocate in kind. Sanders - and, to a degree, Warren - are so focused on the internal “establishment” vs. “progressives” feud within the Democratic party that they have not taken the time to do that. Yet, it’s crucial: if you become president, how do you expect to pass ambitious policy proposals if you have no back-up in the legislative branch to help you pass it?

Black Voters Are Supreme … But Stop Disrespecting The Elders

So, this is what many of us wanted all along: a forceful showing of the Black Electorate. This was the obvious and key lesson since South Carolina last Saturday night: never underestimate the collective electoral power of the Black vote. Black voters flexed massive electoral might on Super Tuesday and that favored Biden in spectacular ways, a testament to not only Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Black political class, but also a sense that Sanders and Warren have not yet figured out how to connect with Black voters. Much of that is due to continued Black voter resentment against Sanders for the 2016 debacle that led to Trump’s election. Other reasons include a progressive wing assumption that: 1) the vast majority of Black voters are reflexively “progressive” or “Democratic socialist”-minded when, in reality, the Black Electorate is largely pragmatic and politically shrewd, and 2) that younger Black GenZ and Millennial voters are the leading wing of the Black Electorate at a time when younger voters in general, especially younger Black voters, have trouble with turnout.

Additionally, there is a mistaken narrative floating about that it was only older Black voters, from GenX to seniors or “Black Boomers” who put Biden on top, with some analysis that unfairly disparages Black seniors for making flawed electoral choices. Yet, exit polls show a different story: Biden won Black Millennials (ages 30-44), too, in key states where he needed them: states such as South Carolina (44 percent); Alabama (65 percent); North Carolina (58 percent); Tennessee (almost beating Sanders’ 37 percent w/ 35 percent); Virginia (51 percent)

Sanders did handily beat Biden in the Black Millennial voter category in Texas 41 percent to 29 percent. He also barely beat Biden among Black Millennials at 37 percent vs. Biden’s 35 percent. Interestingly enough: these were two Southern states highlighted that night as having major problems with polling station closures (TN) and long lines due to limited polling precincts (TX). Hence, places where voter suppression seemed a factor - albeit the Nashville, TN area was hampered by a major deadly tornado that impacted voting - are places where Sanders did better with the Black Millennial vote.

Some people are forgetting, also, that just like everyone else, the Millennials do get older, too.

Money Can’t Buy You Everything - But, It Still Helps

We also got a chance to see that Mike Bloomberg’s historic, unprecedented $500 million campaign ad buy didn’t buy him as much voter love as he had expected. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a major factor and that Bloomberg’s brief foray into the race didn’t influence the contours of the primary: it very much did. Bloomberg still did better than Warren in most states, it should be noted. And in most states he scored above 10 percent

But, Bloomberg’s failure to capture voter interest had less to do with misspent money and more to do with Bloomberg’s personality and public appearances. He had no effective counter to the “stop and frisk” controversy as he non-chalantly brushed it off and he couldn’t counter Warren’s destructive attacks on him regarding redlining and reports of his own sexism (although, it’s unclear if that really helped Warren as much in the grander electoral scheme of things). Bloomberg’s own snarky and aloof personality did him in.

Still: Bloomberg’s money worked. As G.S. Potter shows us, Democrats shouldn’t discount the value of that spend and the massive troves of data resulting from it, since it presented an opportunity to heavily micro-target Black and Brown voters. Bloomberg forces the Democratic Party to make the necessary investments in trusted, credible Black and Brown media sources. Bloomberg still managed to, in a very short period of time, gain enough interest among Black voters that he was polling 3rd place among Black Democratic primary voters prior to South Carolina and Super Tuesday: at 19 percent - and was doing much better than candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar who had been in the race much longer …

Bloomberg even managed to place second among Black voters in Alabama and Texas. So, in that very short period of time, Bloomberg’s strategy of early and aggressive ad placement in Black radio, newspapers and online paid off. Bloomberg’s personality, however, didn’t match it.

But, overall, Bloomberg’s money worked for Biden. It was Bloomberg who sustained hits on the debate stage that could have been reserved for Biden, acting as something of a buffer against Sanders and, especially, Warren. The former New York City mayor’s presence came at a very critical period for Biden, who would not have survived attacks from progressives in time to make a powerful showing in South Carolina and in Super Tuesday states.

In addition, Bloomberg’s massive ad buy in 29 states across the country helped to suppress and mute Trump ad buys and presence. During the Super Bowl, for example, Bloomberg’s ads seemed to outdo Trump’s ads in terms of presence and appeal.

It’s Not Just Organization …

Bloomberg had bottomless pockets of money. Sanders had lots of money, too, and lots of boots on the ground - a “movement,” as he likes to describe it. Even Warren had a bit of organization, too, and some money to work with. And all of these candidates had very loud voices on social media. Yet, Biden won the day with very little in terms of organization, personnel, and money. What gives?

It proves that the typical presidential campaign playbook has been completely overhauled and re-written since 2016. We saw how much influence money lost in an election with all the free media that helped catapult Trump into the White House. We may be seeing that same climate in 2020. Biden, simply, is a better known and, on some levels, trusted brand. He is also associated with another trusted and popular brand known as Barack Obama. That helps. And, it also helps that most Democratic voters are scared shitless of a second Trump term, especially Black voters who see how high the stakes are.

So, it’s not just organization. And, it’s definitely not social media: you can have a lot of bark, but then when it’s time to bite.

We also see that money and organization can only take you so far if you don’t have the 1) brand, 2) the personality to match it, 3) an uplifting message and less divisive message (“get back up”), and 4) a teamwork dynamic where you actively forge relationships and partnerships versus dismissing them. Politics, ultimately, is a game of addition, not subtraction. That’s if you really want to win …

Hence, Biden’s advantage on Super Tuesday showed in agility, a little creativity and teamwork. If you’re the quarterback, or competing for the quarterback job, you want to know the team playbook and, most importantly, you want to get along with the other players in the locker room. Fail to do that and your offensive line will crumble and leave you exposed to a sack.