Super Tuesday Preview: MA, MN, VT—Favorite Daughters (and a Son)

Once upon a time, in a nomination system far, far away, there was something called a favorite son. Nominations were decided at party conventions. Some states did have primaries, but many didn’t. Often, even when there was a primary, the active candidates wouldn’t contest it. The state party would put up a popular governor or senator. Someone who wasn’t truly running for president, but was strong enough at home to scare off the leading candidates from out of state. The Favorite Son would then win the primary and delegates attached.

When the convention rolled around, the state party would have full control of the delegation, and negotiate accordingly with the contenders to see what platform and other concessions they could get if they chose a particular horse on the first ballot. For example, in 1960, California Governor Pat Brown ran as the favorite son in the Democratic primary, while JFK, Hubert Humphrey, and the other contenders stayed away. Kennedy then needed to bargain with the California delegation before and at the convention to win their support. His first ballot victory would not have happened without it, as he barely cleared a delegate majority.

When the system changed for 1972, with most states holding primaries or caucuses open to the public, and most serious candidates contesting most of them, the gambit fell out of favor. We think of candidates having an edge in general elections because they can win a key home state, but usually ignore it during primary season. This created a different primary season element. Avoiding embarrassment.

Think of Marco Rubio getting obliterated by Donald Trump in Florida last time. It drove him from the race. If you lose your home state by 20 points to a guy with a vacation manse there, you’re done. When candidates aren’t getting chased by losing, sometimes they lose by having to divert resources to their home base. Ted Cruz won Texas in 2016, but it wasn’t by a ton. He spent crucial days ahead of Super Tuesday at home, and wound up losing a few states by a thin margin. That scoreboard difference cemented Trump as the unquestioned front-runner, and Cruz never caught him.

The same happened to Ronald Reagan in California during his 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford. Losing at home was unrecoverable, and the Gipper wasn’t as overwhelmingly popular at home as you might think. Again, time and money was spent to secure something that he would have preferred to count on. Ford had no similar concerns in Michigan. This disparity helped Ford win an all-consuming struggle.

Three of our contestants have their home states participating on Super Tuesday. And they’re in distinctly different positions at home. Bernie Sanders is a true favorite son. Amy Klobuchar is a provisional favorite daughter. And Elizabeth Warren has a problem.

Vermont:

2016 Result: This was a wipeout. Bernie cleared 85% of the vote against Hillary Clinton. He’s very popular in Vermont. There is only one House seat in the state. So Bernie has won statewide elections there on a regular basis for the past thirty years. Though the Green Mountain State is now very blue, there aren’t many registered Democrats. Many Vermonters are Independents, and Republicans who don’t resemble their red state peers often win local elections and hold the governorship.

When Joe Biden talks about nominating an actual Democrat, it resonates with large swaths of the electorate. But not in Vermont. Bernie has the branding and ideology to connect with his home state voters. There’s also the matter of state pride. Vermonters aren’t usually presidential contenders. Howard Dean gave it a go in 2004, but that’s it. Calvin Coolidge was born there 150ish years ago, but went to Massachusetts to win political fortune.

Early Voting: Many voters take advantage of liberal absentee policies, and a good portion of the electorate has made their pick. That’s a neutral for Bernie, who doesn’t need much help. Biden’s South Carolina statement, will, if anything get Vermonters to rally around Bernie.

Delegates: This is the one remaining question. Bernie will win, and will clear 50% in doing so. If nobody else gets past 15%, he’ll collect all 16 delegates. Not a Texas-sized haul, but every delegate counts. Especially after South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg reached 13% in the most recent survey. Will those not supporting Sanders now rally to Biden, or are Bernie-liking, but not thinking he’s the best nominee Vermonters going to choose Pete as someone to safely support, knowing he likely won’t get close to winning the nomination? Maybe Buttigieg got a lot of early votes (relatively speaking), but Biden will do best with those voting on Tuesday, they’ll cancel each other out, and neither gets to 15%. Something to watch. No clue which way it goes.

Current Polls: See above. There’s one survey from this calendar year. Biden and Klobuchar were at/under 5%. Bloomberg 7%. Warren 9%. It’s from before New Hampshire. So you’d figure Warren is weaker now than then, and Bloomberg is at best even. For what it’s worth, Buttigieg did very well in the New Hampshire counties on the Vermont border. As polls close here on Tuesday and precincts start reporting, we’ll get an early read on how badly the past two results have discouraged Pete’s supporters.

Minnesota:

A true favorite son/daughter will win no matter what. That’s what made the tactic work so well. Bernie is the true definition. Klobuchar is the next best thing. She’s the John Kasich version. Popular statewide. Well identified as being representative of that state. Klobuchar was born and raised in Minnesota. Kasich actually grew up in Western PA, but that’s part of the same area as a good chunk of Eastern Ohio. He started representing Ohio in congress in 1983. Close enough. Despite Trump being a good fit for his state, and winning in November by the largest margin of any Republican since 1988, Kasich still won by a few points.

Minnesotans will support Klobuchar if it’s at all feasible. But is it?

2016 Result: Minnesota is one of multiple Super Tuesday states switching from a caucus to a primary. Bernie won in 2016, with a little over 60% of the vote. It’s a state he should be able to compete in anyway, but caucuses favored him tremendously in 2016. Turnout is much lower, and depends way more on enthusiasm. You can extrapolate these results to assume it would have been a close race if there was a primary.

Early Voting: Absentee voting is easy, and Minnesotans could begin in mid-January. It’s easy to picture Klobuchar banking a ton of votes in the aftermath of her strong New Hampshire showing. That would balance out some slippage after Nevada, and especially after South Carolina.

Delegates: Klobuchar could win. FiveThirtyEight thinks she’s still the most likely based on the evidence at hand. But Sanders is doing well in polling. He’s not going to struggle to clear 15%. Kasich got all the delegates in Ohio because Republicans go to winner-take-all later in the primary season. Had Cruz and/or Kasich done just a little better in the final 20 contests, those delegates would have been very valuable at the convention.

This is different. Minnesota doesn’t have as high a percentage of delegates as Ohio, and Klobuchar is likely to win less than half of the available ones. Sure, maybe the nomination comes down to 30 delegates out of almost 4,000, and she can trade these, along with the few she picked up in Iowa and New Hampshire for the Veepship. More likely, it’s her first salvo for 2024, showing she can at least protect her home base, while Warren could not.

Current Polls: Klobuchar led the two surveys taken after New Hampshire and before Nevada by 6 points each over Sanders. None of the other moderates were close. Warren was in third, at either 11% or 16% depending on whom you believe. Surveys from mid-2019 had Warren ahead, with Klobuchar in the next pack.

This is consistent with a provisional favorite daughter. When she was running about 10th in national polls and struggling to make the debate stage, Klobuchar wasn’t running first, but she was far ahead of her standing elsewhere. As soon as she did decently well in the first two contests, her constituents began lining up behind her. Had Klobuchar done a little better in Nevada or South Carolina, I’d be confident assuming she’ll win.

We’re now balancing how many votes she got early, and how much voters still want to rally around her. For those who want to stop Bernie, it depends how aware Minnesotans are that Biden is likely trailing by too much in early voting to catch him, regardless of how much support he gets Tuesday. It’s also a bad state for him (i.e. few voters of color.) This would have been prime Buttigieg Territory if Klobuchar was out. Staying in is one more way that she’s helped ensure her nemesis can’t break out of the pack by consolidating educated white moderates.

This is a good Warren state. Presumably, some of her supporters will gravitate to Klobuchar or Sanders, but if they don’t, she could get delegates here. It reminds us why Warren was once a top-tier contender. Had Klobuchar stopped after Iowa and Warren managed to stay ahead of or at least closer to Bernie, she’d be set to win on Tuesday.

Massachusetts:

Speaking of Warren. Her campaign is claiming she will continue through March, regardless of her placing at home on Tuesday. This is the sort of thing campaigns say. It doesn’t mean she’d truly stay in if she loses by several points here. A lot depends on how many states she manages to clear 15% in and whether she can finally finish ahead of Mayor Pete in a few places.

I don’t see how she can possibly win the nomination, even as a convention compromise between stalemated Bernie and Biden factions, if she fails to win at home. It’s unprecedented, and as much as everything we’re seeing is new (a pile of almost 80-year-olds being the top three national polling options, etc.), I’ll believe this isn’t an automatic disqualification when I see it. But if she can get a semi-decent amount of delegates during the month, made easier if Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg don’t survive Super Tuesday, she could compile enough to tilt the balance to Sanders, in exchange for the Veepdom.

2016 Results: Hillary won an incredibly close contest. One of several sliding doors moments in the campaign, where a slightly different result (like her losing Iowa instead of winning it), may have led to a very different outcome. Clinton won the 2016 primary/caucus popular vote by more than 10 points. It wasn’t *that* close. But that was after Sanders barely lost MA, IL, MO, and a few other key contests, only narrowly winning MI.

It sets up an interesting contest this time. Sanders did well enough that he’s a serious contender this time. Polls back this up. But he lost ground from New Hampshire to Massachusetts in 2016, and won pretty narrowly in the Granite State this time, so we shouldn’t think he’s going to run away with this. Warren has shown polling weakness at home for most of the campaign, won her 2018 re-election by less than you’d figure, and struggled across the border in New Hampshire. So, she’s no sure thing.

The male moderate choices (Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg) are kind of in a cluster. If voters were to choose one, that would add up to enough for a win. Normally, Klobuchar would be expected to do decently here. The highly educated, older, white voting pool is a good share of the population. However, there does appear to be some home state loyalty to Warren among those who want a female nominee.

Early Voting: This is ideal for Warren. Instead of having a month or more, Bay Staters got five days, from February 24-28. This was after her Nevada debate evisceration of Bloomberg, and while she was pushing a narrative that her results there were weaker than they would have been if early voters hadn’t chosen before the debate. There was some exit polling evidence to back up this assertion.

How this impacted the moderate choices is beyond me. Biden hadn’t won South Carolina yet. Bloomberg had one more debate to recover a bit. Buttigieg’s Nevada result wasn’t that bad. If I had to bet, I’d figure the support was split a bit, but who knows.

Delegates: I’m assuming Warren will at least do well enough to get some delegates. Not only is she likely to clear 15% statewide, but there’s enough variance between districts that she’d do well in a few, even if the overall results aren’t great. The problem for her is Bernie is definitely getting a good share of the delegates too. Assuming the margin between the two remains relatively narrow, the win/loss is more about saving face for Warren, or a strong win for Bernie than the delegate difference.

Where the numbers matter is how things break down on the moderate side. It’s possible Biden/Buttigieg/Bloomberg block each other into mathematical irrelevance. Or one could challenge for the lead. If it’s Biden, that’s a very good sign heading to the next round of states. Massachusetts shouldn’t be one of his best. If it’s Buttigieg, it means he remains competitive in states with favorable demographics for him. If Bloomberg, then Biden isn’t getting rid of him just yet.

If you assume that Bloomberg and Buttigieg delegates are more likely to wind up with Biden than Bernie in a convention fight/negotiation, then even if they come at a price, having them stick around is actually a way to make sure Sanders doesn’t get a delegate majority. The extra candidates create variables that didn’t exist in the 2008 Obama/Clinton fight or 2016 Bernie/Hillary battle.

Current Polls: Sanders is currently leading. But it’s close. He is ahead in each of the five surveys taken after actual voting began. Three were taken partially during the early voting period. Two were well within the margin of error. Sanders leads by 8 in the other. If Warren had a normal, Klobuchar-like, home-field advantage, never mind what Bernie has in Vermont, you’d assume she could more than hang on here.

Beyond her currently representing Massachusetts, there’s a base of Warren support based on demographics, that translates to 13 to 15 percent of the vote. Anything can happen beyond that. She could retain the next 10% because voters want her and their state to matter later. She could lose the Bernie-resisters among them to Biden, the Bernie fans among them to Sanders. We already covered the moderate scrum.

There’s a very high variance here. Both in terms of results and potential interpretations. Results from Massachusetts will start coming in before polls close in California. If someone beats or falls short of expectations by a lot, it could impact later in the day voters out west.

As you can see, I’m not confident making any predictions about who will win and by how much just yet. But I am pretty sure the results of the two favorite daughters will impact the race, at least for the rest of March.

UPDATE: Mayor Pete has left the building! The math just wasn’t there. He had no chance to win a delegate majority before the convention, and more importantly, wasn’t likely to hit 15% many places on Tuesday. My guess is his polling was showing a freefall. You would think Biden is the biggest beneficiary of this decision, but unless he outright endorses him (which is possible), Warren and Bloomberg will benefit to some extent. It may help them past the 15% threshold in various places, which is even better for Biden in a way, by making it harder for Bernie to get a delegate majority.

In MA, this is good for Warren. In MN, it’s good for Klobuchar, and in VT, it’s either good for Sanders because nobody else will clear 15%, or will help someone else get to the 15%.

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