Feb 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

How Joe Biden's free fall puts Bernie in command

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Data: RealClearPolitics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Bernie Sanders hasn't picked up the voters who are deserting Joe Biden, but he's the clear beneficiary of the former vice president's rapid collapse.

The big picture: Of the top six candidates in the race, Sanders' polling numbers have changed the least over the last few weeks — but Biden's fall has made Sanders the biggest winner, since the moderate vote is now splintered four ways.

By the numbers: Biden's national polling cratered, from 28.7% on Jan. 27 to 19.2% as of Feb. 12, with most of the damage done after his fourth-place finish in the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

  • Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg climbed 6.5 and 3.5 points, respectively, in that time. (Elizabeth Warren dipped 2.6 points and Amy Klobuchar edged up less than a point.)
  • But the large, moderate voting bloc that propelled Biden is now splitting between multiple candidates.

Between the lines: Biden has lost his electability aura on top of his standing in the polls. He dropped from 29% to 17% in a Morning Consult poll this week that asked Democratic voters who they considered as having the best chance of beating Trump.

  • That shift put him in third place behind Sanders (29%) and Bloomberg (25%).

One key stat: Sanders has lower polling numbers than any of at least the past five primary front-runners — Democrat or Republican — at this point in the cycle, according to RCP data.

What to watch: Buttigieg is riding the momentum of winning Iowa and finishing a close second to Sanders in New Hampshire. But he needs money to keep going. He is not expected to perform as well with South Carolina's black voters, either.

  • Buttigieg national press secretary Chris Meagher told Axios the campaign is confident it has the resources and volunteers to compete in all of the remaining primary states.
  • Meanwhile, Bloomberg has yet to go head-to-head with candidates on the debate stage and didn't even try to compete in early voting states. He's betting on his all but unlimited resources funneled into big-delegate states to win the nomination.

Go deeper

Super Tuesday suddenly looks different

Biden celebrates in South Carolina. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Joe Biden's huge win in South Carolina is resetting the parameters of the Democratic contest ahead of Super Tuesday.

Why it matters: The former vice president's first primary victory raises existential questions for billionaire Mike Bloomberg and could slow Bernie Sanders' runaway train. And it could give new life to Biden's own withering electability argument — and ramp up pressure on moderates in his lane to drop out.

Biden bets it all on South Carolina

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Most Joe Biden admirers Axios interviewed in South Carolina, where he's vowed to win today's primary, said they're unfazed by his embarrassing losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Why it matters: Biden has bet it all on South Carolina to position himself as the best alternative to Bernie Sanders — his "good buddy," he tells voters before skewering Sanders' record and ideas.

What to watch in tonight's Democratic debate

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Colorado. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is now the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his opponents are ready to try to knock him down at tonight's debate in Charleston, South Carolina — especially Michael Bloomberg, who was the punching bag at the Las Vegas debate.

Why it matters: This is the last debate before Super Tuesday, when Sanders is expected to win California and Texas and could secure an insurmountable lead for the Democratic nomination. That's a direct threat to the entire field, but especially to Bloomberg, who skipped the early states to focus on the March 3 contests.