A narrow polling deficit in South Carolina turned into a primary-day loss, as Sanders finished 30 points behind the surging Biden. “You can’t win ’em all,” he told his supporters that night, seeming to dismiss the result as an outlier. But Democrats were moving, and the speed with which the race shifted in the three days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday took top Sanders backers by surprise: Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out (along with the billionaire Tom Steyer) and endorsed Biden.
“I wouldn’t have predicted that all three would have dropped out,” Larry Cohen, the president of the Sanders-supporting Our Revolution PAC, told The Atlantic yesterday.
Just how well Sanders did—or didn’t do—in California might not be known for weeks, as the popularity of vote-by-mail makes the nation’s largest state notoriously slow at counting ballots. Meanwhile, the big states that vote in the next two weeks will provide opportunities for both him and Biden. With plenty of delegates still up for grabs, Sanders has time to regroup. Biden will be under pressure to raise money and build a bigger organization quickly, and he’ll have to continue navigating the verbal stumbles that first caused Democrats to doubt his viability in the general election.
Read: What Joe Biden can’t bring himself to say
Michigan, which is the biggest prize on March 10, was the site of one of Sanders’s most surprising victories over Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he overcame a polling deficit of more than 20 points. He also fought Clinton nearly to a draw in Missouri, which also votes next week. Biden, for his part, is positioned to do well in Mississippi, where African Americans make up a large portion of the Democratic electorate.
An even bigger day on the primary calendar is March 17, when Ohio, Illinois, and Florida all weigh in. Florida is where Sanders is likely to struggle the most: Clinton walloped him there in 2016, and his democratic-socialist agenda is a poor fit for the state’s large population of older people and more conservative Hispanic voters.
As the race moves on, Sanders must reckon with a Biden comeback that was far bigger than his campaign anticipated. As late as Monday, Sanders’s supporters were still hoping for, if not expecting, a big night. “I suspect that Bernie Sanders is going to come out of Super Tuesday having the most states, the most delegates, and the most votes across the field,” Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of Democracy for America, a progressive group that endorsed Sanders, told The Atlantic on Monday.
Once California’s votes are fully counted, the Super Tuesday winner on all three of those metrics may very well be Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders.
As Bloomberg and Warren fall far behind in the delegate count, a race that began more than a year ago with the most diverse Democratic field in history is down to two white septuagenarian men who have spent the better part of their lives walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
On Tuesday, it was the 77-year-old Biden—by a single year, the younger of the two—who won the night.