Bernie Sanders looks for a Texas primary triumph as Joe Biden nips at his heels

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are vying for a victory in Texas, the second biggest delegate prize of the 14 states that hold primaries on Super Tuesday. 
  • Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren could also win delegates as the presidential primary field shrinks. 
  • Sanders is banking on support from younger and Latino voters, while Biden is showing strength with older and black voters, according to recent polls of Texas. 
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his wife Jane Sanders wave to the crowd at the end of a campaign rally at Vic Mathias Shores Park on February 23, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

An increasingly young and diverse red state that the Democratic Party sees as a core piece of its future will get its chance Tuesday to define which white septuagenarian will represent the party against President Donald Trump.

Texas will hold its presidential primary Tuesday, joining 13 other states that will dole out more than a third of all pledged delegates in the 2020 race. The Lone Star State will allocate 228 delegates, more than any state voting this week other than California. 

The huge and still growing Texas will test 78-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders' efforts to boost turnout among young and Latino voters, core parts of a coalition he hopes will propel him to the Democratic nomination and the White House. Carried to his first primary win by overwhelming support from black voters in South Carolina, former Vice President Joe Biden, 77, hopes black voters in Texas and elsewhere Tuesday will help him keep pace with Sanders in the national delegate race. 

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's appearance on ballots for the first time complicates their efforts to rack up votes in Texas. The 78-year-old billionaire, who has spent more than $500 million on his campaign across a range of states such as Texas, has made inroads with older voters of color, who have typically leaned toward supporting Biden, according to recent Texas polls.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70, has also drawn a major chunk of support and could win delegates in Texas. 

With its mammoth delegate haul, the Texas primary will play a major role in deciding who gets the nomination. It will also give a clue about whether presidential candidates can harness increased Democratic energy and a rising Latino voting bloc in a state central to the party's ambitions in the coming years. 

"There is incredible progressive momentum on the ground in Texas. ... Latinos' massive growth as a voting bloc is largely driven and attributed to the youth coming of age. Young Latinos in Texas are growing in power," said Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt, an organization that aims to increase engagement and voting among young Latinos in Texas. The group has endorsed Sanders for president.

Texas typically votes Republican in presidential elections. Trump, 73, won the state by 9 percentage points in 2016. Yet Democrats have high hopes for Texas after flipping several congressional districts and coming just short of winning a U.S. Senate race in 2018. Democrats aim to defend or flip U.S. House seats around Austin, Houston and Dallas, cities with changing demographics that have made them skew more Democratic. The party also has designs on flipping the Texas state house this year. 

Along with winning over disaffected independents and Republicans, mobilizing voters of color is a part of the party's strategy.

In the 2016 Texas primary, Hispanic or Latino voters made up 32% of the Democratic electorate, according to exit polls. About one-fifth, or 19%, were black. 

Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by at least 40 percentage points among both groups of voters, exit surveys showed. Sanders needs those trends to change this year, and polls indicate they have. 

An NBC News/Marist poll — taken before Biden's blowout South Carolina primary win and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg's decisions to drop out of the race and endorse the former vice president — found Sanders leading among Latinos with 46% of support. Bloomberg and Biden followed at 14% and 13%, respectively. 

Pete Buttigieg drops out of 2020 Democratic presidential primary

Biden narrowly led Sanders among African American voters by a 30% to 24% margin. Bloomberg followed at 20%. Sanders dominated among voters under 45, while Biden had a smaller edge among voters older than 45.

Chris Chu de Leon, the Texas state coordinator for the Sanders campaign, described a push to reach out to communities of color and college students in the state. On Feb. 24, he said the campaign had knocked on more than 100,000 doors in the previous two and a half weeks. He noted that the Sanders campaign chose its offices in largely Latino areas like Houston's East End and on E. Cesar Chavez St. in Austin. 

"I think Texas represents a lot of what the future of this country will look like," he told CNBC last week. "I think when we win Texas, it will affirm to a lot of people that this isn't a fluke. It's about building a movement of people from all walks of life." 

The stakes in Texas

While Sanders has led every recent poll in the Lone Star State, his rivals have pushed not to let him walk away with an easy win or a flood of delegates. 

Sanders enters Super Tuesday with a 60 to 53 national delegate lead over Biden, according to NBC News. The Vermont senator leads the former vice president by 6 percentage points in an average of recent Texas polls. 

A flurry of activity in the race since most of the polls were taken could change the ultimate results. Biden's South Carolina win could have inspired more confidence in his campaign. Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined to get more than 10% of support in most recent Texas polls, leaving those voters up for grabs. 

Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters during a rally on March 2, 2020 at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.
Mark Felix | AFP | Getty Images

But Texas could blunt the effects of recent developments. The state's Democratic Party said 1 million people voted early in the primary — about 70% of the total 2016 primary turnout. 

As in other nominating contests so far, Sanders appeared to have an edge among early deciders in the primary. Multiple Democratic voters spoke to CNBC in Houston and Austin late last month during the first two days of early voting. All of them voted for Sanders. 

"I was considering Warren for a while but then she kind of backpedaled on Medicare for All, I think. So that was kind of the tipping point for me," said 26-year-old software developer Austin Olivares, a Sanders voter who lives in Houston's Energy Corridor. 

Bloomberg and Warren change the delegate math

Texas allocates the majority of its delegates, 149, proportionally based on the vote at the state Senate district level. Candidates need to hit 15% to win delegates. 

It doles out the remaining 79 proportionally to candidates that get 15% of the vote statewide. 

Polling indicates a couple candidates will be right on the cusp of winning delegates statewide — and potentially in Senate districts. Bloomberg and Warren stood at 16.7% and 14.7%, respectively, in an average of recent Texas polls.

Whether they hit 15% will have implications for the race's delegates leaders, Sanders and Biden, as they try to move closer to a majority needed to win the nomination. With several candidates chopping up the vote on Super Tuesday, any hopeful trying to become the party's nominee outright may need a few blowouts in large states. 

Campaigns know the state's importance. Sanders drew more than 28,000 people to rallies in a swing late last month through Austin, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio. 

Biden spent his final day before Super Tuesday in Texas, making stops in Houston and Dallas.

His campaign has touted a diverse group of local and congressional endorsers in Texas in recent days. Austin Mayor Steve Adler backed him. So did U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia, Colin Allred, Marc Veasey, Vicente Gonzalez, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Filemon Vela. 

Warren, meanwhile, spoke in Houston on Saturday. She has run in the state with the backing of figures such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro. 

Speaking to supporters in Houston, Warren said "we're looking forward to gaining as many delegates to the convention as we can — from California to right here in Texas." She used the remarks to frame herself as the candidate best prepared to handle the coronavirus outbreak, a strategy she has leaned into in recent days as she tries to make gains in a shrinking field. 

Several candidates who could win delegates in Texas have spent money on TV ads in the state. One has stood out. 

Bloomberg ads have followed Texans everywhere. From homes to bars to hotel lobbies, voters have heard the words, "I'm Mike Bloomberg, and I approve this message."

The billionaire has shelled out so much cash in the state that he has reportedly spent 80% of the money put into primary TV ads in Texas. 

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