Former Vice President Joe Biden needed a big win in Missouri’s presidential primary to cement himself as the clear frontrunner in the Democratic scramble for the White House.
On Tuesday, Biden got that victory with a margin so large that it may signal an end to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential hopes. And Missouri Democrats hope that Biden’s decisive win can give them the boost they need in November.
Biden outflanked Sanders in every single Missouri county. It’s a far cry from what happened in 2016, when Sanders and Hillary Clinton effectively split the number of Missouri delegates going to the Democratic National Convention. Unofficial estimates from the Missouri Democratic Party show a more lopsided tally: Biden will have 44 delegates sent to Milwaukee, while Sanders gets 24.
To home in on Tuesday’s results a bit further, let’s answer eight key questions I posed before voters made their decision:
1) Did a winnowed field help push Biden into the lead?
It’s impossible to know what Tuesday’s results would have been like if candidates like Michael Bloomberg, Elilzabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were still in the race. But it stands to reason they would have split up Missouri’s vote much more. And it was clear that many supporters of those candidates sided with Biden, as evidenced by how Biden captured more than 60% of the vote in a 22-person race.
For voters like Melissa Grizzle, the reason for supporting Biden was pretty straightforward: Missouri Democrats want to support someone who could stand toe-to-toe with President Trump in November.
“I'm going to still wear my Pete Buttigieg bracelet,” Grizzle said. “But I got my Biden for President T-shirt. And let's go get 'em.”
2) Can Sanders build on his 2016 success?
Even though Missouri wasn’t the biggest prize on Tuesday night, Sanders needed to show he could regain his footing in a state he lost by fewer than 2,000 votes in 2016. Instead, Sanders lost ground everywhere. That includes suburbs in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties, as well as less populated rural areas.
Perhaps the most stinging loss was in Boone County, which Sanders won by roughly 22% in 2016. Four years later, Biden prevailed in the home county of the University of Missouri-Columbia — where, obviously, a lot of young people courted by Sanders live.
Combined with big losses in Michigan and Mississippi and an underwhelming performance in Washington, Sanders’ path to the nomination looks bleak. He didn’t do much to change the trajectory of the race with big states like Illinois, Ohio and Florida set to vote next week.
3) How will Warren factor into the equation?
There’s no way to know for sure how former Warren supporters voted on Tuesday. But given Biden’s huge margin of victory, it’s fair to assume that not enough of them gravitated to Sanders to make much of a difference.
After all, Biden won key suburbs like St. Louis, St. Charles, Platte and Clay counties by 20 percentage points or more. It’s not unfair to assume that these are the places where Warren would have done the best, since they have large populations of female voters drawn to the Massachusetts senator’s campaign.
Warren ended up coming in fourth place behind Bloomberg, who had poured millions of dollars' worth of ads and staffers into Missouri. In fact, Bloomberg actually beat Sanders in St. Louis County absentee ballot voting — a signal that the former New York City mayor broke through to some voters.
4) Which candidate can win in outstate Missouri?
When examining Missouri’s counties with fewer than 60,000 residents, Biden received nearly 50,000 more votes than Sanders. By comparison, Sanders defeated Clinton in those same counties in 2016 by around 6,000 votes.
Sanders lost ground even in rural counties with public universities, like Adair County (home of Truman State University) and Nodaway County (home of Northwest Missouri State University). Biden won some smaller- populated counties in northern and southern Missouri with anywhere from 60% to 70% of the vote.
While these counties probably won’t fall into the Democratic column in November, Missouri Democrats need Biden to perform better than Clinton did in outstate Missouri to lift up statewide candidates like state Auditor Nicole Galloway.
5) Will a large ballot have an impact on the final results?
This question was only going to be a factor if the results looked like 2016. But since Biden’s margin was so wide, the other 20 candidates on the ballot didn’t make much of a difference.
That didn’t mean that some of the long shots didn’t create some interest. Leonard and Velma Steinman, a married couple from Cole County who signed up for the Missouri presidential ballot, actually did better than former candidates who were in debates — including Marianne Williamson and Julian Castro.
With 190 votes, Velma ended up prevailing in the Battle of the Steinmans by 14 votes.
6) How close will the margin of victory be?
Biden’s win is not necessarily unprecedented. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore won Missouri’s Democratic primary by 31 percentage points over former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. And then-Sen. John Kerry won the 2004 Missouri primary by 26 points over John Edwards.
Yet the margin is notable considering Sanders has had more money than Biden throughout the campaign. And Sanders’ supporters had been organizing in Missouri for a lot longer than Biden.
And it should be noted that the 2000 and 2004 Democratic primaries featured completely different choices for Democratic voters. Sanders nearly won Missouri’s primary in 2016, which makes the big margin all the more disappointing for supporters of the Vermont senator.
7) Which candidates have the backing of black voters?
Once again, the answer is Biden. Big time.
A look at unofficial ward-by-ward results in St. Louis shows Biden won by huge margins in majority-black north St. Louis wards. He got close to 75% of the vote in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 21st Wards. And while St. Louis County township results aren’t available yet, Biden’s 65% share of the vote suggests he did well in predominantly African American areas.
This result falls in line with Biden’s strong performances in states with large black populations, like Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina. Missouri Democratic Party secretary Darryl Gray said the reasoning behind this trend is pretty straightforward.
“Vice President Biden was the vice president for President Barack Obama. I don't care what anybody says. That's at the top of the list,” Gray said.
Gray also said that older black voters and black female voters tend to be more moderate — and therefore gravitate to someone like Biden.
“The black community has been loyal to the Democratic Party. There's nothing that's going to change that,” Gray said. “And Joe Biden, to a lot of African Americans, they see him as a Democrat Joe Biden. And as we talked to African Americans, they have never seen Bernie Sanders as that Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrat. And it does make a difference.”
8) Can either Sanders or Biden help Missouri down-ballot candidates?
There’s no way to answer this question until November. But many Missouri Democrats are clearly hoping Biden can bring the party back to respectability.
That’s because the national environment almost always influences Missouri’s statewide contests. When voters felt bullish about Trump in 2016, his huge support helped sink Chris Koster’s gubernatorial hopes and Jason Kander’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. And when Missourians soured on George W. Bush’s presidency in 2008, Democrats won nearly all statewide offices that year.
At the moment, few Democrats expect Biden to win Missouri’s electoral votes in November. But if Trump only wins the state by 5 to 10 percentage points, it could provide an opening to candidates like Galloway. And it may help Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp’s bid to unseat GOP Rep. Ann Wagner in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.
But getting to that point may require unity among Biden and Sanders’ supporters. Gray said that Sanders’ discourse against Biden has been fairly mild, with most of the criticism focusing on policy differences rather than pointed personal attacks.
“Hopefully the lesson was learned from 2016,” Gray said. “Even though Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million votes, it was still lukewarm support among progressives and the black community. I like to think by looking at it, that they're trying not to make that mistake.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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