After weeks of trailing each other from Iowa to New Hampshire and on to Nevada, the Democratic presidential candidates are facing a race that transforms from a state-by-state march after South Carolina’s primary Saturday into a broad national sprint for the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday on March 3, three days later.
The shift exponentially escalates the costs for advertising and campaign travel and already is forcing campaigns struggling for resources to craft divergent strategies to accumulate enough delegates to survive.
Adding to the urgency for many candidates is the rise of Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.), who has both the resources to blanket key states with events and advertising and unalloyed control of the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. His early state success — wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a narrow delegate loss in Iowa — has left former vice president Joe Biden, Sens. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Warren (D-Mass.), and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Buttigieg fighting for a pool of more moderate voters just as former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg wades into the race with his unlimited budget.
For Sanders, Super Tuesday represents an opportunity to bury the rest of the field with a nearly unsurmountable pile of delegates. His strong start and sprawling campaign organization in states voting soon has forced all the other candidates to try to prove to voters they can still compete — even if their best shot may be second. For Warren and Klobuchar, there is an added imperative: to avoid losing their home states on March 3.
Sanders’s money and organization have allowed him to spend weeks punctuating visits to early-voting states with trips to Super Tuesday states — most notably delegate-heavy California, where rival campaigns believe he will be difficult to beat.
Sanders on Saturday held rallies in El Paso and San Antonio, and he campaigned in Texas again Sunday. Campaign officials are now hoping for a strong finish in South Carolina in addition to a trio of delegate-rich states in Super Tuesday: Texas, North Carolina and California.
“This state, maybe more than any other state, has the possibility of transforming this country,” he said in Houston Sunday.
The goal for Buttigieg’s campaign on Super Tuesday is to accumulate enough delegates to stay within striking distance of Sanders. Campaign advisers say if he is close Super Tuesday, states voting March 10 and 17 — including Michigan, Ohio, Arizona and Illinois — are favorable enough to Buttigieg to allow him to make up ground. His campaign has already spent money on digital ads in some of those states, and last week sent a paid organizer to Ohio.
His hunt for delegates already has led him to different places than Sanders.
Last week, Buttigieg squeezed in a trip to Salt Lake City, where his campaign has made a major organizing push and earned endorsements from several local officials. His campaign also is counting on delegate-rich areas in some of the less high-profile Super Tuesday states — Little Rock, for one. He campaigned in Northern Virginia Sunday and has stops scheduled in Raleigh, N.C., and Oklahoma City before Super Tuesday. VoteVets, the super PAC supporting Buttigieg, announced Sunday it will make a seven-figure ad buy in various Super Tuesday states.
One difficulty with that strategy, even if it does yield as many delegates as his campaign hopes, is that it defers winning — and without victories, money and momentum will be harder to come by.
Buttigieg acknowledged Saturday that he has something to prove in South Carolina, too, given his struggles to accumulate support from nonwhite voters and the more diverse electorates heading to the polls on Super Tuesday.
“Obviously South Carolina is an opportunity to demonstrate that our coalition is broader than people thought,” Buttigieg told reporters on his charter flight Saturday. “ … and then we’ve got to have a good showing in Super Tuesday — it’s why we’re pushing so hard to make sure we have the resources to win.”
Warren, meanwhile, went straight to Seattle Saturday for the kind of rally that can double as a fundraising opportunity by fostering enthusiasm. She hasn’t won a delegate since the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, and polling in South Carolina suggests she won’t collect any there either. But Warren is banking her candidacy on the idea that she can begin accumulating delegates on March 3 by doing well in liberal pockets like Denver, San Antonio and the Los Angeles area.
“We have a lot of states to go,” Warren told supporters in Seattle Saturday night.
Over the next few days, Warren will campaign in South Carolina, but she also plans a Thursday evening rally in San Antonio with Julián Castro, the former mayor of that city, and a stop in the Los Angeles area. Warren’s campaign has bought TV ad time in Colorado and Maine.
The campaign also will air ads starting Tuesday in Austin, San Antonio and Oklahoma City — all population-rich areas in Super Tuesday states. The campaign also paid for some ads in Seattle, where early voting has begun.
Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau said in a memo distributed earlier this month that she would be able to pick up delegates in 108 of the roughly 150 congressional or other districts that award delegates on Super Tuesday, meaning the campaign believes she’d garner support from more than the minimum threshold of 15 percent in those areas. “If you broaden that to districts where we’re within reach of the threshold … we’re playing in 149 districts, or 88% of the map,” Lau wrote.
Klobuchar had to ramp up her national operation more hurriedly than her competitors, as it was not until her third-place finish in New Hampshire on Feb. 11 that she had the momentum and money to start hiring staffers in Super Tuesday states. She stopped by Colorado this week and headed to her home state to raise money Saturday — followed by a Sunday three-state tour via charter plane: Fargo to Oklahoma City to Little Rock. (North Dakota votes a week after Oklahoma and Arkansas, Super Tuesday states.)
While Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar have all begun paying attention to Super Tuesday states, Biden remains focused on South Carolina, where he will spend the next week in hopes of resurrecting his campaign with a win there that propels him into similar Super Tuesday states.
“The African American community in South Carolina can make a judgment about who the next president of the United States is going to be. Literally,” Biden told the congregation at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in Charleston Sunday.
“When the African American community decides, we’re going to move onto Super Tuesday, as they call it, where there’s a significant African American vote.”
Several Super Tuesday states, including Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama, have substantial numbers of black voters. But Biden has not been advertising in those states and, while he is already well known, the lack of visibility could be problematic at a time when Bloomberg is flooding the airwaves.
His campaign has been trying to pinpoint individual congressional districts across the Super Tuesday states, a strategy that is complicated this year by the size of the remaining field, which conjures any number of possibilities.
Several weeks ago, Biden’s campaign hired Dave Huynh, a delegate specialist who had earlier worked for Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
“March is really going to matter in the nomination process,” Huynh said. “It’s going to be an important month, and it will play a very important role in determining who the nominee is. As they say, March matters.”
As the campaign broadens to a much more nationalized race, Biden’s campaign also has a legal team monitoring the rules in each state, which could come into play in an extremely tight race where every delegate matters.
“The rules have changed dramatically,” said Dana Remus, the general counsel for the Biden campaign. “One of the tasks at hand is to understand what the new rules look like now.”
Jenna Johnson and Sean Sullivan also contributed reporting.