‘This Isn’t Going to Be Easy’: 2020 Democrats Brace for Super Tuesday Delegate Slog
WASHINGTON — For the last month, the Democratic presidential candidates have had a straightforward task: Campaign heavily in the small, overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and hope to emerge with momentum.
Things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.
A still-jumbled Democratic primary is entering a new phase, as a suddenly truncated political calendar forces the remaining candidates to figure out how to compete in 18 separate contests over the next three weeks — effectively demanding they transform their local campaigns into national ones.
The timeline, including the Nevada caucuses, the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, will present difficult decisions for campaigns on how to spend their limited time and money as they strategically compete for a giant pot of delegates in a diverse set of states. The outcome will determine which candidates can march on deep into the contest — and which will be pushed out.
“Early states are all about positioning yourself,” said Elan Kriegel, director of analytics on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Super Tuesday and beyond is about winning the nomination. That’s the fundamental difference.”
Adding to the challenge is that the seven candidates who emerged from the lead-off contests are also about to confront Michael Bloomberg, who has spent $350 million and counting of his own money on ads, presenting a new variable for even the best-funded delegate leaders like Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
“Bloomberg doesn’t grapple. He just does all of it. He advertises everywhere. He staffs up everywhere. He’s actually been quietly traveling around everywhere,” said Bob Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who steered John Kerry’s 2004 White House bid. “Buttigieg will apparently have resources, but it’ll be a fifth or a tenth of what Bloomberg will spend. Even Sanders — with all the fundraising prowess he has — will be massively outspent by Bloomberg.”
The next three weeks will separate operations that have true national strategies from those who can only afford to compete in a select few places, many of which have had limited exposure to the campaign.
“This isn’t going to be easy and it’s not going to be clean and it’s not going to be quick,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic communications consultant who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run.
While Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses stand as the next stop on the map, campaigns are already looking beyond it to delegate-rich March 3 behemoths like California, which has already been voting for more than a week, and Texas, which begins its early vote on Tuesday. Combined, those two states will award more than 640 pledged delegates, nearly ten times as many as were awarded by Iowa and New Hampshire.
Pledged delegates are awarded on a proportional basis to candidates who cross a 15% threshold, at both the statewide and congressional district level. (In Texas, delegates are awarded by senatorial district.)
On Wednesday, Buttigieg sat for satellite interviews with local television affiliates in Atlanta, Charleston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Nashville, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. He’s also scheduled a series of fundraisers in California and Seattle.
Sanders will hold rallies in North Carolina and Texas on Friday before heading to Nevada and Colorado. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren will attempt to recharge her slumping campaign on Thursday in Virginia, another Super Tuesday state offering 99 delegates.
“You’re not going to be able to plant yourself in Nevada the next 11 days and then the next seven days in South Carolina,” said Mark Longabaugh, who was a senior strategist on Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “You have to be hitting both of those states, and you’ve gotta be hitting the March 3rd states at the same time.”
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Joe Biden’s aides and allies indicated it would be reviving the former vice president’s bus tour in South Carolina and Super Tuesday states. Biden surrogates reiterated their candidate’s enduring strength with voters of color and downplayed their need for vast resources to compete broadly.
“Joe Biden doesn’t need to spend money to introduce himself to Americans,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is a co-chair of Biden’s campaign. “In some of these states we’re being outspent 20-30 times and we’re still ahead.”
But it’s far from clear if those polling leads are sustainable, given Biden’s severely weakened standing after his fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.
As they approach Super Tuesday, the danger for Biden and other moderate candidates is a lack of consolidation within their wing of the party will benefit Sanders, who some strategists believe could consistently earn 30% of the vote while his rivals fail to cross the 15% threshold necessary to earn any delegates.
A spokeswoman for Sanders’s campaign said the senator has 105 staffers in California, spread across 22 field offices, including in places they say rarely receive presidential attention.
Democratic operatives say that to stop Sanders, campaigns will have to devise a city-by-city calculus about where to get the most bang for their time and buck.
A full-fledged statewide campaign in California can cost upward of $30 million, according to strategists, a sum no candidate but the billionaire candidates can muster. That means there will be even a greater reliance on local surrogates and earned media exposure both locally and nationally.
The same is true in Texas, where local Democrats say candidates will have to pick their spots in the state’s 31 senatorial districts to try and earn the most delegates.
“If you’re looking at this seriously, you’re taking a look at where you might be a few points down and ask how can you make strategic decisions to get yourself into qualifying for delegates within that Senate district,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
“That means not just statewide TV broadcasts, that means Spanish-language ads, African-American radio, rural radio,” he added. “That means targeted digital ads in different parts and corners of the state, and all sorts of different tactics you can do if you understand how you are going to do in each of these 31 senatorial districts.”
Garcia praised the Texas operations of some of the campaigns, noting Bloomberg’s commitment to open 17 field offices in the state, Warren’s and Sanders’ on-the-ground staff, and the support Biden and Buttigieg have from local Democratic candidates.
Others in the state were more critical: One party operative unaligned with any campaign, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said Bloomberg’s operation was by far the most robust in the state, while Sanders and Warren had also put in real effort to have a presence in Texas. But the source added the other candidates, including Buttigieg, Biden and Amy Klobuchar, had little to no operation in the state.
For a still-emerging candidate like Klobuchar, part of the challenge is simply getting better known. Eighteen percent of Democratic primary voters nationally polled by Morning Consult within the last week said they still had never heard of the Minnesota senator, with an additional 23% expressing no opinion of her whatsoever.
Klobuchar’s campaign is planning to deploy staff to Super Tuesday states by this weekend. It has already eyed Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas as places where she could potentially replicate her New Hampshire success, since independents can vote. But an aide characterized the strategy as “very much a work in progress.”
Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who is fundraising for Klobuchar, said he believes that growth generated by organic buzz may prove itself to be more important than an advertising campaign or staffing surge.
“Today I started receiving lots of emails: ‘Is she coming to Illinois?’” the Chicago-based Heyman said. “Today was the first day I had a lot of people come to me and say ‘I’d like to learn more.0 I think it is a change.”
Emily Cadei contributed to this report.
©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
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