Pete Buttigieg’s exit from the presidential race adds another wrinkle to the Democratic contest ahead of Super Tuesday. The exact effects of the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s departure, along with Joe Biden’s blowout victory in South Carolina, are unknowable.
Still, it’s pretty clear that Buttigieg getting out likely helps the former vice president and hurts Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Let’s start with the simple fact that Biden has been hovering around the 15% threshold for delegates in a number of states, including the huge Super Tuesday delegate prize of California. Biden was at 13% in a CNN/SSRS poll conducted there. Buttigieg was at 7%. If Biden gets two points of that 7%, it could make all the difference in the world to him. That alone could net Biden dozens or more of delegates.
Sanders doesn’t have that problem. He’s likely at or above 15% nearly everywhere on Super Tuesday. Even if he got more of Buttigieg’s pie than Biden in different states, it wouldn’t do him a lot of good.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is also right near the 15% threshold in California. If just a few Buttigieg supporters go to Warren, it means she may gain enough ground to reach 15%, when she might not have otherwise. More delegates won by Warren means she sticks around longer. A lot of her supporters describe themselves as very liberal, much like Sanders’.
Moreover, more candidates hitting the 15% threshold increases the chance that no one receives a majority of delegates. Hence, another way to read Buttigieg getting out is that it’s good news for those who wish for a contested convention.
Given that Sanders is likely to win fewer superdelegates on a second ballot (when they’re allowed to vote), this is again bad news for Sanders. It’s good news for Biden, who has the support of a lot of elected officials who are superdelegates.
But let’s dig a little deeper: There are good reasons to think that Biden will do better than Sanders with Buttigieg backers. Beyond the mere fact that Buttigieg made it clear in his speech Sunday night that he doesn’t think Sanders is the right choice for president, the data suggests it too.
Buttigieg voters don’t look like Sanders’ backers, ideologically speaking. Very liberals were consistently Buttigieg’s worst group. In South Carolina, just 4% of very liberals voted for Buttigieg. In Nevada, it was 8%. Even in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Buttigieg did well overall, he did more than 10 points worse with very liberals than he did with moderates.
That’s a pattern similar to Biden’s. In South Carolina on Saturday, Biden did 14 points better with moderates than very liberals. A little over a week ago in Nevada, Biden’s support was 13 points higher with moderates than very liberals. In fact, in every contest, Biden has done better with moderates than very liberals.
Sanders, of course, exhibited the opposite pattern. In every state, his best group was very liberals. He did at least 17 points better with them than moderates in each contest so far. Often, he’d do near 30 points or even better with very liberals than moderates.
Still, I don’t want to make too big a deal of this ideological breakdown. Buttigieg was only polling in the low double digits at this point nationally, and not every Buttigieg supporter goes to Biden. Buttigieg, like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Warren, was winning votes primarily from white Democrats. Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll from early February (long before Biden won South Carolina) found that Klobuchar and Warren were actually more likely to be the second choice of Buttigieg backers.
(That said, there is more recent data to suggest Buttigieg backers are more likely to consider voting for Biden than any other candidate. Just like the Quinnipiac poll, they’re far less likely to consider Sanders than Biden.)
I do want to emphasize that with a lot of delegates being decided soon, every vote counts. Putting it all together, Biden should be far more pleased with Buttigieg dropping than Sanders is.