Capitol Report: Biden leapfrogs Sanders on Super Tuesday and re-emerges as favorite in Democratic presidential primary

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It’s now a two-man race in the Democratic primary for the right to face off against President Trump in November — and Joe Biden suddenly has all the momentum on his side.

The former vice president captured 10 of the 14 states voting on Super Tuesday, taking the lead over chief rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in the vitally important delegate count. Ten days ago, the Biden campaign almost seemed dead in the water after he finished badly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Just as important, Biden earned the support of a broader slice of the Democratic electorate, suggesting he’ll be the front runner in a slew of upcoming contests.

The next round of voting takes place a week from now, with Michigan being the top prize. The most recent poll has Biden surging into the lead.

While last night’s exit polls showed that a broad share of the Democratic electorate has a “favorable” view of socialism, the self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont wasn’t able to translate that support into enough votes.

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Democratic party White House hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders addresses supporters at a rally.

Some two-thirds of Democratic voters said picking a candidate who could beat Trump was their top priority. Only one-third said they preferred a candidate who agreed the most with their own views.

“Super Tuesday showed that Democrats most value ‘electability’ and, with the opening moderate lane, Vice President Biden is the clear beneficiary of this vote,” analysts at the advisory firm Height Security said.

At last count, Biden has won 506 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination outright, according to an NBC News tracker. Sanders has tallied 455 delegates.

Read: Biden racks up string of Super Tuesday wins as Sanders takes California

Sanders salvaged a near-disastrous night by winning California, the largest and most delegate-rich state in the Democratic primary. Even then, his margin was not nearly as commanding as his campaign had hoped.

Read: What happens if no one wins the Democratic primary outright?

The once-huge and rambling Democratic field has narrower even further.

Wealthy businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars, suspended his campaign on Wednesday after performing poorly. He endorsed Biden.

The only other top contender, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, finished a distance third in her own state and is facing pressure to drop out.

Related: Bloomberg won the Super Tuesday ad war but not the votes — in one chart

The two candidates left standing are a pair of white septuagenarians, a surprising outcome for an increasingly diverse Democratic party. Biden, 77, and Sanders, 78, would be the oldest men to ever ascend to the presidency if they prevailed against the 73-year-old Trump.

Biden and Sanders don’t have much in common, however, and leave voters with a stark choice.

A moderate Democrat throughout his long career, Biden has promised to build incrementally on the policies of former President Barack Obama. He’s sounded a somewhat more liberal tone in the 2020 primaries, but has shied away from grandiose plans to remake the nation’s health-care system or reshape the economy.

Sanders has spent a lifetime railing against Wall Street and the “Washington establishment,” vowing wholesale changes in how the economy operates. His controversial Medicare-for-all plan, for instance, would eliminate private insurance.

Wall Street appeared to cheer Biden’s strong performance. The Dow Jones Industrial DJIA, +3.03%  rose 500 points in Wednesday trades.

While Sanders has polled well in head-to-head matchups against Trump, many leading Democrats in Washington and around the country worried that Sanders would lose handily in the fall, perhaps costing the party control of the U.S. House.

Party leaders have sought to unify around Biden in the past week to prevent Sanders from gaining an insurmountable lead in delegates. Just days before Super Tuesday, rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the presidential race and threw their support behind Biden.

What’s also helped Biden was a shift on Super Tuesday toward more Southern states with large dollops of African-American voters, a more moderate part of the Democratic base. They carried him to a stunningly large victory in South Carolina one week ago and helped Biden win on Tuesday in Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

Sanders has partly offset Biden’s huge edge with black voters by running up big margins with Hispanic voters, but he hasn’t generated the kind of turnout he promised with younger voters or working-class whites. That a poor omen for upcoming contests.

In the next slate of primaries on March 10, Biden is likely to be favored in Missouri and Mississippi. The critical state to watch is Michigan, where Sanders won a narrow upset victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. All three states have large African-American populations.

Michigan would seem to be primed for a Biden win in light of his recent momentum, narrowing the odds that Sanders can complete a comeback.

A big win by Biden in Michigan might also put him on a clear path to sew up the nomination before the Democratic convention next summer. If he follows up by winning in Florida two weeks from now he could build an insurmountable lead.

Sanders still has a fund-raising advantage over Biden — for now — and a base of hardcore supporters unlikely to desert him. Yet it will be hard for him to overtake Biden unless he can dominate a swath of Midwestern states. His surprise loss in Minnesota casts doubt on his ability to do so.

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