ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – On a rainy Tuesday evening, dozens of supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden gathered at a bar in the Old Town area of Alexandria to watch the returns from the Super Tuesday contests across the United States. Democrats in 14 states and one territory voted during the day, and Biden fans were expecting to hear good news, based on recent polling data for their favored presidential candidate.
It didn’t take long for the optimism to be proven right. At exactly 7 P.M. local time, as activists and supporters were still gathering and ordering drinks, the television networks made two early projections in favor of Biden. He won easily in nearby North Carolina and, to the delight of the local crowd, also carried Virginia by a large margin. The crowd broke out into cheers and dancing.
As the night went on, more and more good news kept arriving for the Biden campaign. By 1 A.M., it was apparent he was on track to win at least nine of the states that voted on Tuesday (and possibly a 10th in Maine).
Hours before the local victory party, it was already easy to identify that Biden was headed for victory in the Old Dominion. At a polling station in the western part of Alexandria, the trend was clear: one by one, voters who spoke with Haaretz described a similar process of deliberating between several candidates for a long time, before eventually settling on Biden just before Election Day. The fact that two other moderate candidates, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, suspended their campaigns earlier this week and quickly endorsed Biden certainly helped.
“I was thinking about voting for Mike Bloomberg, because up until a few days ago all the pundits on television said Biden had no chance of winning the nomination and should consider quitting,” said Jack, 54, who asked that his last name not be published because he works at a government agency.
He opted for Biden after the former vice president’s decisive victory in the South Carolina primary over the weekend – and the Klobuchar and Buttigieg endorsements only strengthened that decision. “Once all of that happened, he became the candidate you vote for if you want a reasonable, moderate Democrat who can beat [President Donald] Trump in November,” Jack explained.
However, polls conducted just last week predicted a much tighter race in Virginia – and certainly not one that would be called by the news networks just minutes after polls were closed across the state. Back then, Biden, Bloomberg, Klobuchar and Buttigieg seemed to divide the votes of moderate Democrats, giving Senator Bernie Sanders the win with a narrow plurality. The move to consolidate behind Biden in recent days changed the picture completely.
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“I voted for Joe Biden ’cause he’s ready to become president tomorrow morning, he was a great vice president under Barack Obama, and – the number one reason – he can win,” said Mike, a Democrat in his fifties. Mike supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, and said he was optimistic about Biden’s chances of winning the nomination this time.
“He can unite the party. We have to unite in order to defeat Trump. The populists and the mainstream can work together,” Mike said. “We really have to do it.”
There was a lot of talk about unity at the Biden victory party later in the evening. But Sanders’ reaction to Biden’s string of victories showed the party still has a tough nomination fight ahead that will probably last for months, possibly all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
Sanders, who won the delegate-rich state of California, in addition to Colorado, Utah and his home state of Vermont, railed against the establishment that he believes is trying to block his route to the Democratic nomination. Sanders also attacked Biden for voting in favor of the Iraq War in 2003 and his positions on trade.
Number one priority
In Virginia, and specifically the prosperous suburbs outside of Washington, Sanders’ “antiestablishment” message fell short. Biden won big in the cities of Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church, and the larger suburban counties around them. This area is also home to the state’s largest Jewish communities – a fact that didn’t seem to play into the hands of either Sanders or Bloomberg, the two Jewish candidates left in the race. Both were crushed by Biden in the northern part of the state.
Milton Goldberg, who voted at an elementary school in Arlington, told Haaretz he originally planned to vote for another candidate with Jewish roots – Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who dropped out of the primary race after last month’s vote in New Hampshire. “I think he’s a smart person and could have been an excellent president,” Goldberg explained. “But once he dropped out, I decided to go with Biden. He can beat Trump: that’s our number one priority this year.”
Another Jewish voter, Sarah, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of her government job, said she actually deliberated between Biden and Sanders. “I agree with a lot of what Bernie says,” she explained. “But I’m afraid he will be too radical for the country and lose the general election. I’m also concerned about anti-Semitism if he becomes the nominee.”
Sarah ended up voting for Biden.
Most of the voters who told Haaretz they had voted for Biden cited two main reasons for choosing the former vice president: his experience in the Obama White House; and his polling numbers versus Trump.
We also asked every voter interviewed for this story if they were certain they’d vote for the eventual Democratic nominee in November, regardless of who that nominee might be. One Biden supporter said they were unsure if they’d vote for Sanders; two Sanders voters said the same about Biden.
“I know where Bernie and Elizabeth Warren stand on the issues that are important to me,” said Maria, a student living in Arlington. “I can’t say the same about Biden. It’s possible that I would vote for him – but I will have to do some research and learn more about him before making such a decision.”
The challenge of winning the nomination and then uniting the party still looms for Biden, who emerged as the new front-runner out of Super Tuesday. At the party organized by his supporters in Alexandria, there was true joy over his impressive victories, but also concerns about the weeks ahead and the danger of an escalating war with Sanders.
“Joe has the experience, he has the heart, he has the drive, he has the grit and he has the courage not only to bring the Democratic Party together, but to bring our whole nation together,” said local Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, who was first elected to Congress in the 2018 “blue wave” when she flipped a Republican congressional district. She formally endorsed Biden’s presidential bid on Sunday.
Wexton told Biden supporters the former vice president was the first politician who called to congratulate her on her victory in November 2018. “Now Virginia is sending a message to the nation,” she said. “Joe Biden will bring us together.”
Biden managed to bring many people together on Super Tuesday, but he still has to defeat Sanders in the upcoming states and make sure Bloomberg doesn’t take away his momentum. (Both Bloomberg and Warren suffered disappointing nights on Tuesday and will come under increasing pressure to drop out of the race.) And after all that, he will then face an even bigger challenge: Uniting a fractured party and leading it into a fierce battle against Trump.