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8 Things To Watch For When Missouri Democrats Pick A Presidential Nominee

Updated at 10:10 a.m., March 5, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropping out of the presidential race

Missouri Democrats will have 22 candidates to choose from when they head to the polls Tuesday for the presidential primary, but most are either dropouts or longshots. The two leading candidates are now former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

With other major candidates dropping out of the race, Biden is starting to consolidate institutional support from heavyweights in the Missouri Democratic Party — even though he hasn’t spent as much money as other contenders. Even with Biden gaining steam, Sanders possesses a strong base of support in all parts of the state. 

Here are some of the big questions that could determine how Missouri’s 68 delegates are split up on Tuesday:

1.) Did a winnowed field help push Biden into the lead?

Former Vice President Joe Biden has momentum going into Missouri's March 10 primary.

Biden started gaining momentum after winning South Carolina, leading other candidates to drop out of the race. After his Super Tuesday wins, a number of prominent Missouri Democrats — including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, former Gov. Bob Holden and former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan — endorsed Biden. 

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, who had endorsed former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, threw his support behind Biden on Wednesday, calling him an “experienced, empathetic leader America” whom “the world needs now to end this untruthful, divisive and incredibly simplistic presidency in November.”

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, thinks Biden is in a better position to defeat President Donald Trump. “That's one of the prerequisites for most members in Congress embracing the former vice president,” he said .

Ballwin resident Chad Walton supported former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. He was on the fence about whom to support in Missouri’s primary but decided to back Biden after Super Tuesday.

“People saw in him a winner and who could beat Trump,” Walton said. “And that’s what it all came down to.”

2.) Can Sanders build on his 2016 success?

Sen. Bernie Sanders nearly won Missouri's primary back in 2016.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton had the near unanimous support of key political figures and labor unions throughout Missouri. But Sanders was still able to nearly win the state, losing by a little more than 1,500 votes.

This time around, Sanders has a lot more money to pour into the state. He also has a cadre of diehard supporters who have remained active in state and local politics over the past four years. 

And Sanders has a distinct set of policy positions that could set him apart from Biden, particularly when it comes to health care and foreign policy.

“I think that the success behind Bernie is really that he's been able to build this multiracial coalition, and this coalition has transcended urban and rural communities and in a lot of ways brought us together,” said St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Green. “And I think that's going to be the power that we see behind him going into March 10.”

3.) How will Warren factor into the equation?

St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, speaks to canvassers on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Clancy and St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, D-8th Ward, are backing Warren's campaign.

Before Super Tuesday, both Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns were putting a lot of effort into competing in Missouri. Bloomberg dropped out of the race on Wednesday — though his staff in Missouri is expected to continue working through November to elect Democrats.

Warren also has paid staffers working throughout Missouri and snagged endorsements from people like St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy and St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice. But her prospects for the nomination took a massive hit on Super Tuesday when she failed to come close to winning any of the states voting. And the New York Times reported she planned on dropping out of the race on Thursday.

What Warren's departure means for the race is unclear. For one thing, it's not out of the question that a lot of people voted for Warren already through absentee voting — which means she'll get a decent share of the vote on Tuesday if it's not enough to get delegates.

It will also be worth watching if Warren dropping out helps Sanders' cause, since both share many of the same policy positions. A big test here will be how Biden or Sanders perform in suburbs where Warren could have had appeal, such as St. Louis and Jackson Counties.

4.) Which candidate can win in outstate Missouri?

Rural Missouri counties have drifted away from Democrats over the past few years. But whoever wins outstate Missouri could have an edge on March 10.

On the surface, winning Missouri’s small rural counties may be a small priority for either Biden or Sanders. That’s because Missouri Democrats’ standing in these places has collapsed over the past few election cycles.

But if the March 10 race is tight, gaining a foothold in rural Missouri could be the difference between victory or defeat. Sanders ended up winning in Missouri counties of 60,000 people or fewer by about 6,000 votes, which contributed to his narrow margin against Clinton.

Whether Sanders can replicate his performance this time around remains to be seen. Biden is perceived to be the more moderate of the two candidates. And given that rural Missouri Democrats tend to, in general, be more conservative may help Biden.

On the other hand, Missouri Democrats from rural Missouri also tend to have a populist streak — and have differentiated themselves from Republicans by railing against corporate takeovers of agriculture. Those voters may relate more to Sanders.

5.) Will a large ballot have an impact on the final results?

There are 22 candidates on the Missouri Democratic presidential ballot.

As mentioned, there are 19 other candidates besides Biden, Sanders and Warren on the Missouri ballot. Some of the local candidates have run before, including former St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas and married perennial candidates Velma and Leonard Steinman. There are also a bunch of contenders who long ago left the Democratic primary, such as Andrew Yang and Cory Booker. 

In a close race, the votes these types of candidates get could matter. For example, Trump edged Ted Cruz in the 2016 Missouri primary by about 2,000 votes. Roughly 3,300 people voted for Jeb Bush, who had long departed the GOP scramble.

Because the Missouri primary is happening so close to the South Carolina and Super Tuesday contests, it’s not out of the question that scores of Missouri Democrats voted for someone who was still in the race with absentee ballot — including Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar. Tuesday will show if those votes are enough to affect the outcome.

6.) How close will the margin of victory be?

One of the nuances that’s been somewhat lost during the Democratic primary is that winning a state is not as important as winning a state by a lot.

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Case in point: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton won Missouri by a small margin in 2008 and 2016 respectively. But their margins of victory were so small that the Missouri delegation to the convention was essentially split. In 2016, Clinton only had one more delegate who went to Philadelphia than Sanders.

This particular question could matter quite a bit if Democrats go into their convention in Milwaukee without a nominee with enough delegates to win on the first ballot. In that scenario, Missouri’s 10 superdelegates would be able to cast a ballot. At least four Democratic National Committee members, including Green, are Sanders supporters. And both Cleaver and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, would get a vote as well.

“And so I will still have some sway and some say in who our ultimate nominee will be,” said Clay, who has not endorsed a candidate.

7.) Which candidates have the backing of black voters?

Missouri's black voters could be decisive in pushing either Biden or Sanders ahead in the state's Democratic primary.

Out of all the unanswered questions, this one may be the most important in determining the winner of Tuesday’s primary. African Americans are one of the Missouri Democratic Party’s most important voting blocs. So if they back a particular candidate, as was the case with Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016, that could be decisive.

Biden’s comeback started in earnest in South Carolina, thanks to stout support from black voters. He also chalked up huge wins in states with big African American populations like North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. 

“I think he will do fabulously well in what we call the urban core,” Cleaver said. “Not the racial urban core, but the urban core period.”

Others, like congressional candidate Cori Bush, believe Sanders has made inroads with black voters in Missouri since he ran here in 2016.

“People said that he couldn’t get the black community,” Bush said. “Well I’ve been all over the black community here and people are like, ‘Hey, you can’t just assume we’re going to vote for you. You’ve got to do the work.” 

8.) Can either Sanders or Biden help Missouri down-ballot candidates?

Former Gov. Jay Nixon says he's concerned about Sanders' impact on downballot candidates. Sanders' supporters say he will turn out a broad coalition to take on President Donald Trump.

There’s clearly a difference of opinion on whether Biden or Sanders would be a better fit for Missouri Democrats running in November contests, such as gubernatorial hopeful Nicole Galloway.

Green contends that Sanders is the better choice, because he’s been able to form a movement of people that want to see sweeping policy change.

“[Trump] has a movement behind him. Whether we like that movement or want to admit that, that movement exists. It is real,” Green said. “And I think that the way that we counter this movement that is behind Donald Trump is with our own movement. And we are seeing that Sen. Sanders is the only candidate in this race that has really consolidated a movement behind him.”

Some of Sanders’ detractors, like former Gov. Jay Nixon, said he’s “very concerned about the Democrats running a socialist for president.”

“The bottom line is in an electoral context, running against an incredibly well funded and vicious campaign the way the Trump campaign will be there, that's just a target-rich environment if your nominee is Bernie Sanders,” Nixon said.

This particular question won’t be answered immediately after Tuesday. But it could be on the mind of voters on Tuesday.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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