Well, that was quick.
In less than a week, Joe Biden went from a candidate hanging on the cusp of possible elimination in South Carolina to the front-runner and most likely nominee in the Democratic presidential race.
The underlying reasons are simple: The No. 1 Democratic priority is beating President Donald Trump. And a majority of rank-and-file Democrats showed they share the view of top party leaders that Biden is a much better bet to do that than rival Bernie Sanders.
They did so by powering Biden to a far stronger showing in Tuesday's 14-state Super Tuesday primaries than preprimary polls and delegate projections had forecast. The former vice president won a majority of the states and even held a lead in delegates on a night the Vermont senator's strategists forecast he had a solid advantage.
As a result, fears of an indecisive primary season with Sanders taking a delegate lead into July's Democratic Convention have been replaced by the very real possibility that Biden could capture a majority before the convention convenes in Milwaukee.
A poor showing prompted former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to announce Wednesday morning he is dropping his candidacy and joining other moderates in backing Biden. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren remains in the race, despite losing her home state, but the race has clearly narrowed down to the two veteran septuagenarians, Biden and Sanders.
Tuesday's results capped a stunning 72-hour period in which Biden's smashing South Carolina primary victory Saturday night set off a surge of support from top party leaders, climaxed by Monday night's endorsement in Dallas of three primary rivals — former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
Their actions reflected the belief that Biden can not only capture enough independents and disaffected Republicans to recapture the presidency but can help the Democrats retain the House and possibly recapture the Senate.
Party leaders don't think Sanders can do that, despite current polls showing him beating Trump by about as much as Biden. They fear his policies are too expensive and too far left for general election voters and that most will prefer Biden's pledge to restore moderation and unity, rather than the Vermont senator's vow to lead a political revolution.
A key factor in Biden's strong showing was a reiteration of the strength among African Americans he displayed in South Carolina after last Wednesday's crucial and emotional endorsement from Rep. James Clyburn, the top-ranking African American in Congress.
But the contests also displayed these other patterns:
- Moderate and conservative Democrats, divided earlier among several candidates, coalesced behind Biden, swelling his vote far beyond what even late preprimary polls predicted. In part, that reflected the endorsements from former rivals; Klobuchar's backing played a key role in enabling his unexpected upset victory in her home state of Minnesota.
- Late deciding voters broke overwhelmingly for Biden, another manifestation of that post-South Carolina surge. By contrast, two of Sanders' victories came in California and Colorado, where many voted before Election Day.
- Sanders once more failed to expand his vote beyond the 25-30% that was enough for him to win the earlier multicandidate battles in New Hampshire and Nevada and battle Buttigieg to a standstill in Iowa. On Tuesday, it proved insufficient to overcome Biden's expanding strength.
The Vermont independent's repeated hopes for an increased turnout of younger voters again failed to materialize. He showed weakness in his home New England region, losing Massachusetts and Maine, and polling barely over 50% in Vermont. And he fared poorly in suburban areas, which have fueled Democratic victories during Trump's presidency and on Tuesday strongly backed Biden.
The night's big losers were Warren, who finished third in her home state of Massachusetts, and Bloomberg, who lost badly from coast to coast despite his unprecedented spending of $500 million on television ads and creation of large field staffs.
Bloomberg failed to make the 15% threshold required to win statewide delegates in 10 of the 14 states. His only victory occurred in the caucuses of American Samoa, and he won fewer than 50 of the 1,300 delegates at stake.
The only other remaining Democratic candidate, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, won a single delegate in American Samoa, from where she hails. But that may not be enough to qualify her for the next televised debate March 15 in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the race moves next Tuesday to seven states, the largest of which are Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Washington. But Sanders faces formidable obstacles there. Though he won Michigan over Hillary Clinton in 2016, a new Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll showed Biden leading him there.
The following week, primaries are scheduled in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
Meanwhile, Biden may be on his way to replicating Bill Clinton's 1992 primary path. Like Biden, he lost both Iowa and New Hampshire but picked up steam when the calendar moved south. In November, he unseated one-term Republican President George Bush, just as Biden hopes to oust Trump.
This race has a long way to go. Though victorious Tuesday, Biden has often been an uncertain campaigner, and Sanders showed in 2016 he doesn't easily back down. But he's the one who needs a comeback now — and soon.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.