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The stage is set for the bitterest battle yet following Super Tuesday

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (C) arrives with wife Jill Biden (2nd R) and sister Valerie Biden Owens (R) at a Super Tuesday campaign event. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

JAMES BALL questions whether any of the remaining Democratic party candidates can defeat Donald Trump.

The night misleadingly called “Super Tuesday” turned into anything but for the Democratic Party, leaving it with the dismal choice of which of two elderly white men it should pick as its champion to beat the elderly orange man in the White House.

Despite spending a reported $650 million dollars of his own money on adverts – more than the Obama campaign is said to have spent in both of its presidential campaigns (not including political action committees [PACs], which pool contributions) – former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg showed himself to be not a viable presidential candidate, but instead a cautionary tale that there are limits to how much money can buy you, even in US politics.

Thanks to the chaos of the Democratic Party and the mess of US electoral results, we won’t know the detailed results of Super Tuesday for weeks – but what is clear from the early projections is that only a few things are clear. Bloomberg is not going to be the Democratic nominee. Neither is Elizabeth Warren – barring miracles at the convention in July.

But Bernie Sanders, who entered Super Tuesday as the frontrunner, does not seem to have done enough to rule out his establishment rival, Joe Biden, as a viable contender, paving the way for the most toxic battle the party could have: Sanders’ fervent anti-establishment fans in a full-scale conflict with Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

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The fight will be bloody and it will be close, and it’s not at all clear at this stage who will win it. What is clear is that the protracted fight can only benefit Donald Trump and the Republican Party. His second term now looks more certain than it did at the beginning of the week.

The mess that has emerged from the Democratic primaries is hardly a shock. No fewer than 23 different candidates had put themselves forward for the nomination and then cancelled their campaign before Super Tuesday itself – a crowded and messy field, reflecting a party unsure of itself, and in many ways at war with itself.

The roll call of candidates included numerous talented politicians all aiming at the same fairly narrow ‘liberal establishment’ lane – including senators like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who both failed to get off the ground. But it also included no fewer than three businessmen with no political experience.

One of them, Andrew Yang, turned out to be worth far less than people believed – his net worth was valued at only a million or so – but Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg spent liberally. While Bloomberg made it to Super Tuesday by ignoring previous contests, Steyer stood down a few days before the vote after spending $160 million of his own money on his presidential race.

In any normal contest, that would have attracted huge attention – but Steyer was overshadowed by a billionaire who could make his own finances look modest, and sunk without trace, but not before muddying the field and outlasting serious politicians.

Of the candidates who dropped out just before Super Tuesday, special attention is surely due to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg was the winner of the Iowa caucus, the first contest in the Democratic primary process – and did so as an openly gay, millennial contestant, who wore his intellect on his sleeve.

‘Mayor Pete’ failed to convince the broader Democratic base he was a viable candidate – he rarely polled above 1% with black voters, and this group makes up the core of the party’s support. He switched his rhetoric from sounding similar to Sanders and Warren in calling for real change, to sounding like a rival to Biden and he struggled to sound convincingly human. But to many he will serve as an icon: he was the first openly gay man to win a state in a presidential primary, and he is young: he could stand as a candidate in every presidential primary from now until 2060, and he would still be younger than Bernie Sanders in this year’s contest.

But his presence and success in the contest raises fundamental questions for the Democratic party, which put up most, if not all, of its stars in this primary race: how did a young, openly-gay, man whose biggest claim to fame was being the former mayor of a town with a population of 102,245, rise to the top of the field against current senators and governors? Why could the others not inspire even this kind of following?

Part of the answer could be seen in the latter days of the campaign of senator Amy Klobuchar, a seasoned Democratic politician on the national stage, whose campaign appeared to continue several weeks after it was clear she was not a viable candidate – unlike even Buttigieg, she didn’t have a single win under her belt.

In the last weeks of its campaign, the Klobuchar team didn’t spend time attacking the frontrunners, but instead – bizarrely – focused its fire on Buttigieg, only to drop out barely hours after Mayor Pete suspended his run, leaving even sympathetic commentators to conclude Klobuchar’s campaign had continued as the result of an odd, ego-driven run-off versus the South Bend mayor.

That left five candidates in the Democratic race as we came into Super Tuesday: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, and Tulsi Gabbard.

One of those candidates can be dismissed as an irrelevance. Gabbard has always been a fringe figure on the Democratic party’s fringe, having expressed sympathy for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and president Putin of Russia and expressed anti-LGBT positions she subsequently recanted.

In a different way, Bloomberg is a rounding error: the main result of his campaign has been to show that even spending $650m is not enough to overshadow terrible debate performances, numerous non-disclosure agreements handed to female employees of his company, and policy positions wildly contradictory to those of the Democratic party – Bloomberg had previously endorsed cuts to both social security (welfare benefits) and Medicare (federal health coverage for older people).

The tragedy of the Democratic primary is perhaps Warren, who on Super Tuesday failed to be viable in several key states, and looked set to hit only third place even in her own home state of Massachusetts.

Almost no-one in the Democratic primary race would disagree with Warren on policy – and she had plenty of that, with detailed plans for dozens of areas affecting real Americans. She has a good personal story: she was a single mother and Republican voter, eventually becoming a university professor and then the champion of a consumer regulator created by Obama in the wake of the financial crisis.

Warren had even been the primary frontrunner towards the end of 2019. But she could not overcome the fact that even as she was hailed as a brilliant, principled woman, she was still a woman – and a party wounded by the failure of Hillary Clinton to beat Donald Trump was not ready to try to take him on with another smart woman.

The choice, then, boils down to whether 78-year-old Bernie Sanders, who had a heart attack during the primary campaign, or 77-year-old Joe Biden, who even supporters worry seems vague during campaign events, is the right champion to try to prevent a second term of 73-year-old Donald Trump’s presidency.

Sanders is often likened to Jeremy Corbyn, a comparison which is unfair in some ways but unnervingly accurate in others. The senator is a far more mainstream politician than the Labour leader, and one much more interested 
in domestic policy with few of the personal problematic links that plagued Corbyn.

But Sanders does have a similar, shrugging, “not in my name” attitude towards his fervent and often abusive supporters, and a similar mistrust of the mainstream: Sanders and his supporters feel the Democratic establishment will do anything to stop them, a view fuelled by endorsement after endorsement of Biden by senior figures in the 48 hours before Super Tuesday.

Establishment figures admit they are trying to stop Sanders, but not for the reasons his supporters allege. Senior Democrats say they don’t fear his agenda – after all, the party has shifted to the left since 2012 and 2016. What they fear is that Sanders will not only lose the presidency but also the Senate and the House, giving a second term Donald Trump an entirely free hand.

Biden’s establishment backers and Bernie’s bros have one thing in common: they each see the other as the barrier in stopping a devastating further four years for Trump. The coming danger is that as they each battle to show who is right, they irreparably damage the winner for the general electorate.

The Democrats need a way to pick a candidate that will bring the party together and unite them to take on the president. In the immediate aftermath of Super Tuesday, that prospect has never looked more distant.

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