Suspense mounts: Is Biden going to surprise Bernie in California tomorrow?

Normally this is where we run through some polls and do a little chin-pulling about how the numbers might move if this group swings to Joe or that group breaks for Bernie.

But the polls are all but completely worthless at the moment, possibly more so than they have been at any moment in any presidential race in the past 25 years. I don’t think we’ve ever seen quite as rapid a sea change as we have over the past week, when Biden’s lead in South Carolina went from narrowing to explosive; some of his main competitors rapidly dropped out and endorsed him; and big names within the party quickly climbed off the fence to endorse him. It’s anyone’s guess at the moment what a Biden blowout in SC plus Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s endorsements plus the likes of Harry Reid swinging behind him plus all the media hype those developments have entailed mean for the results tomorrow night.

Is Biden going to end up doing five points better on Super Tuesday than the pre-SC polls predicted? 15 points better? Given how he outperformed expectations in South Carolina among black voters, how much higher than expected might his share of the black vote in states like Alabama be than pollsters have forecast? He’s gotten everything he could have realistically hoped for over the past 72 hours. We’re in a state of highly unusual near-total uncertainty.

But let’s step back. There are a lot of moving parts tomorrow but the state of the race is surprisingly straightforward. In a nutshell, Bernie versus Biden is largely California versus the south. Bernie’s expected to pile up delegates in Cali; Biden’s expected to pile them up in southern states thanks chiefly to black Democrats. If either man does better than projected on the other’s turf, it’s going to badly damage that second guy’s path to the nomination. Right now Nate Silver’s model has the odds of a brokered convention this summer at 69 percent(!), with Bernie’s chances at a majority of delegates down to a measly 17 percent and Biden right behind at 14 percent. But Sanders’s odds will rise if he runs up the score in California: There are so many delegates at stake there that a truly dominating showing might make his national lead basically insurmountable, even if it’s not quite enough to clinch before the convention.

What if he doesn’t run up the score, though? Here’s a rare post-South Carolina poll of CA. Note the Biden surge:

Sure looks like Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Steyer fans are beginning to head for the lifeboats and paddle over to Biden’s ship. If Joe had a full week of post-SC hype, say, maybe he could catch all the way up to Bernie and threaten to win the state. Since he only has 72 hours, that seems unlikely (he has only a 10 percent chance of winning in FiveThirtyEight’s model) — but the fact that he’s on the rise is significant. That’s because of the 15 percent viability threshold for delegates in Democratic primaries. Biden was right on the bubble for viability in this pollster’s last survey of California; now it seems like he’ll easily clear that bar, cutting deeply into the delegate haul Sanders was hoping to take from the state. At the moment FiveThirtyEight projects Bernie to take 181 delegates versus Biden’s 126, a far more modest advantage than seemed likely when Sanders was the only candidate reliably polling north of 15 percent in California.

And of course, if Biden runs up the score in the south, his delegate hauls there will collectively and gradually eat into the small cushion Bernie will have received from his win in California.

Which is not to imply that that’s the only state where Bernie will do well tomorrow. He’ll probably win Amy Klobuchar’s and Elizabeth Warren’s home states, for starters. But a mediocre performance in Cali and a Biden mega-bounce elsewhere will incinerate his hopes of putting the race away on Super Tuesday. And there are reasons to believe a mega-bounce might (emphasis on “might”) be in the offing, starting with the fact that his only remaining competition for centrist voters was extremely unpopular in SC and might run into that problem elsewhere tomorrow as well:

How much of Bloomberg’s polling surge last month was on the merits, in response to his ads, and how much was a product of fear among moderates that Biden couldn’t win anywhere, necessitating a centrist back-up candidate? If it’s the latter, there might be a stampede from Bloomberg to Biden tomorrow, causing Joe to far outperform his polls and probably knocking Bloomy from the race.

This new national poll suggests that there’s some sort of “maybe Joe can win after all” boost to his polling, although it’s not coming out of Bloomberg’s pocket as much as Bernie’s:

If Joe picked up just half of Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s supporters (and Bernie picked up none), he would lead the race. Imagine what that effect might be like in key states tomorrow night following Pete’s and Amy’s endorsements this evening.

And even though Sanders is all but certain to win California, that doesn’t mean Biden’s showing there might not catch everyone by surprise. If he received all of Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s votes in the Cali poll posted above, he’d be hot on Bernie’s heels for the lead. Yes, yes, I realize he won’t get all of their votes. And yes, the fact that early voting has been going on in California for weeks means that the “Biden bounce” after South Carolina will have come too late to affect a huge chunk of the result in CA. But there’s actually a little good news for Biden on that front too. Per Politico, it looks like a surprisingly large number of Californians have been keeping their powder dry this year, waiting for Election Day to vote.

Paul Mitchell, an elections expert who has tracked the number of returned vote-by-mail California ballots through Friday, told POLITICO he’s seen a significant drop-off among Democratic voters from the past two California presidential primaries to date. And the decline in returned ballots so far is occurring among the most dedicated voters: Those who have participated in the past five elections.

“People in Super Tuesday states and California, in particular, are not returning their ballots yet,” said Danielle Cendejas, a Democratic strategist in California whose firm did campaign mail for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “They’re waiting for a signal, and I think this is a signal. If you were debating between which of the Democrats who aren’t Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren to throw your hat behind, you’re probably going Joe Biden’s way.”

Have undecideds in California been hanging back, wanting to support Biden but not willing to commit until he passed his test in South Carolina? If so, what should we expect tomorrow night now that he’s aced it?

Are we sure Bernie’s still a 90 percent favorite to win there?

I think he’s facing a narrative disaster even if he holds on and wins but by a surprisingly narrow margin. California was supposed to be his big prize tomorrow, the state that was going to almost singlehandedly make him uncatchable in the race to the convention. If Biden performs well enough to eat up most of the delegate advantage Sanders was expecting in CA, the headlines all week will be “NEW DOUBTS ABOUT BERNIE AS BIDEN SURGES NATIONALLY.” Sanders will likely still be the overall delegate leader for now, but maybe not long-term. And even if he ends up at the convention with a plurality, it might be a narrow enough plurality to confound the arguments by his fans that he obviously deserves to be the nominee. Imagine an outcome where Bernie has 41 percent of delegates by June, Biden has 40, and other centrist candidates like Bloomberg and Buttigieg combine for 11. Imagine further that Bloomberg has endorsed Joe by that point. That’d be 51 percent of delegates pledged to some moderate candidate, with all of the moderate candidates themselves having aligned behind a single person. What does the DNC do in that scenario?

That’s no unlikely hypothetical either. Right now — well, see for yourself:

Bernie is momentarily projected to win a grand total of 22 more delegates than Biden is before the end of the primaries. Let me remind you that 415 delegates are at stake tomorrow in California alone. Combine Joe’s haul in Silver’s model with Mike Bloomberg’s projected take of 600+ and you end up with a clear delegate majority for the centrists in Milwaukee even though Bernie will have won a plurality. Gulp.

Here’s the great anti-socialist hope, showing off his skills today on the trail.