Bernie Sanders is going all in on California, hiring nearly two dozen staffers in the state. Joe Biden is deploying campaign hands in North Carolina. And Elizabeth Warren has already made stops in Alabama, Minnesota and Tennessee.
Democratic presidential candidates will spend the bulk of the next four months stumping in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — the states that jumpstart the 2020 nominating contest next February.
But the leading campaigns are beginning to look ahead, ramping up their organizations for the 16 contests that are set to take place on March 3, known as Super Tuesday. More than 1,300 pledged delegates will be up for grabs that day — roughly 40% of the total pot. That’s easily the most of any day of the Democratic primary, meaning the results in those states could provide whichever candidate comes out on top with a clear path to the nomination.
“Look, it’s a puzzle for everybody — we’re all going to have tough choices to make when it comes to allocating resources,” said Pete Kavanaugh, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.
The delegates available on Super Tuesday amount to more than eight times the number that can be captured in the first four states. Formidable showings in the two biggest states voting that day, California and Texas, could propel a candidate into a delegate lead. Minnesota, the sixth-most populous Super Tuesday state, still offers more delegates than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.
With $34 million in the bank and the experience of running in 2016, Sanders may initially be best positioned to navigate the organizational maze that Super Tuesday presents. The campaign has 21 paid staffers in California and has held held 3,000 events in the state. Sanders has also announced more Super Tuesday state directors —six — than any other candidate.
“Bernie Sanders certainly has the strongest organization,” said Michael Kapp, a Democratic National Committee member from California. “He hired staff out here much earlier than anyone else.”
Biden is beginning to deploy campaign hands in North Carolina, a general-election battleground state his team believes is fertile ground for the former vice president’s broad-based, centrist appeal.
Meanwhile, Warren has paid visits to more than half of the Super Tuesday states, but has hired state directors in just three.
The challenge for all the campaigns is balancing time and resources in these delegate-rich states with the first four to vote, which will provide critical momentum to the leading candidates and winnow the field.
Bracing for the potential of early-state losses, Biden’s campaign team believes Super Tuesday will serve as a powerful bulwark due to the plethora of southern states voting that day populated with more diverse and less ideological Democrats. The Biden campaign is finalizing its staffing plans for the March 3 states, which it plans to release in the coming weeks.
“By Super Tuesday, I think it will still be competitive between the top three. But after Super Tuesday, Joe Biden will be the undisputed leader in the primary,” predicted Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who has endorsed Biden. “We will win North Carolina. … Mrs. Warren is a friend but I don’t believe Elizabeth Warren will be able to win.”
“Super Tuesday is incredibly important because the states that are in play on Super Tuesday are reflective of the country in general,” Butterfield added. “It reflects the diversity of the country. Iowa and New Hampshire are different.”
California is the biggest Super Tuesday prize, offering 416 pledged delegates. Polls there have recently shown Warren creeping into a narrow lead over Biden and Sanders.
“California may be a game changer in terms of the numbers,” said Otto Lee, a California DNC member. “Having a weak showing in California could erase big gains in the small states.”
In a recent podcast with David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s first campaign, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir replaced South Carolina with California in naming the first four states that Sanders is preparing to win. A second Sanders campaign official also identified Minnesota, Colorado and Oklahoma as ripe targets for victories, based on Sanders’ 2016 performances.
On the podcast, Shakir added: “I tend to believe by March 3, maybe March 10, we’ll know who the nominee is.”
Of course, the results from the first four contests will have a major impact on Super Tuesday voters as well as the overarching media narrative of the race. But the candidates who emerge from February will need to be ready to capitalize on their success.
Herb Hedden, a delegate expert and Ohio attorney who worked on John Glenn’s 1984 presidential campaign, said the savviest operations would be smart to target congressional districts with an odd number of delegates, in order to squeeze out an advantage in a scenario where the raw vote is extremely close between two candidates.
“If you want to be able to take advantage of a wave you might be part of, you’ve got to be doing the work. We’re now in the phase that campaigns should be doing this work,” Hedden said.
In 2016, Clinton’s Super Tuesday victories in Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts provided her with an ultimately impenetrable delegate lead over Sanders. And in 2008, Super Tuesday served to demonstrate the precision of Obama’s delegate plan, even though Clinton carried bigger states and was initially portrayed as the winner by the media.
Currently, Biden, Warren and Sanders are seen as the candidates most likely to clear the 15% threshold necessary to rack up delegates in a majority of congressional districts.
Biden is currently ahead in Texas, where 228 delegates are at stake. Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, is still pulling double-digit support there, despite a flagging national campaign.
Biden has also held the polling advantage in North Carolina, where the third-most delegates are up for grabs on that Tuesday. But local Democrats say his grassroots outreach hasn’t been as robust as Warren’s and Sanders.
“The only one of the top tier folks I haven’t heard from is Joe Biden’s,” said Ray McKinnon, who was a superdelegate for Sanders in 2016. “I’m not surprised. I was a pretty vocal Sanders supporter so the assumption might be I would be again. But I haven’t made up my mind.”
McKinnon has been courted by the campaigns of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and even Marianne Williamson, but the most persistent outreach has come from Sanders, who invited him to a private meeting of about 20 Democrats in Charlotte back in May.
When McKinnon asked Sanders directly how he’d convey to African-Americans that he was fighting on their behalf, Sanders promised to be more strategic about his message and outreach. But it didn’t seal the deal. Sanders only remains in McKinnon’s top four.
Warren volunteers have been texting influential North Carolina Democrats to gauge support. John Verdejo, a DNC member, recently received one such text looking for Tonya — clearly a wrong number. Verdejo was unfazed and texted back that Warren was in his top two candidates for consideration.
The Warren volunteer responded with an double-hearted smiling emoji. Verdejo noted that Biden has only come to the state for quick high-dollar fundraising.
“Get in, get out,” is how he characterized Biden’s presence. “If he just continues to ignore us and just come in for money, I’d say Warren. Warren’s looking good right now… I’m almost ready to pull the trigger.”
Massachusetts, another Super Tuesday state that’s host to 91 delegates, offers a home-field advantage for Warren. But a September poll from the Boston Globe showed Biden with a narrow lead.
Democrats in some Super Tuesday states, including Colorado and Alabama, conveyed that campaign activity is less intense than at the same point in past presidential cycles.
But in Virginia it’s quiet for a reason. Party officials there have requested that presidential candidates not prop up organizations to avoid distracting from their legislative elections in November.
“If you’re a volunteer and posed with, hey I could work for a House of Delegates candidate or work to support Elizabeth Warren in whatever way?,” asked Chris Bolling, the state party’s executive director. “Wouldn’t you pick Elizabeth Warren?”