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Business News/ News / World/  Behind Biden’s rise, a boost from centrists—and Trump
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Behind Biden’s rise, a boost from centrists—and Trump

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Turnout from suburban voters, eager for a moderate to take on the president, has hurt Bernie Sanders’s chances for the nomination

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden (Reuters)Premium
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden (Reuters)

The Democratic primary race has divided voters into two clear coalitions, one backing Sen. Bernie Sanders’s call for revolutionary change and one drawn to the quieter tone and more incremental policies proposed by former Vice President Joe Biden.

Super Tuesday supplied one surprising reason that Mr. Biden’s coalition, so far, is the larger one: President Trump, a force from outside the Democratic Party, is helping to change the Democratic electorate, making it more friendly to Mr. Biden’s style of politics.

The shift in voting patterns has emerged from exit polls as well as ballots cast by nearly 14 million Americans in 16 Democratic primaries and three caucuses. Voters surged to the polls this week in the affluent suburbs outside big cities—among them Nashville, Houston, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.—producing a voter pool that was more moderate in its politics than in 2016 and more supportive of Mr. Biden than his main opponent.

Mixed in among the Democrats were voters such as Paige McIntosh of Fairfax County, Va., a lifelong Republican who cast the first Democratic primary ballot of her life. Her vote was both an embrace of Mr. Biden and a rejection of Mr. Trump. “I want someone moderate to vote for. I’m desperate for someone moderate to vote for," said Ms. McIntosh, 48, who owns a landscaping business. “I worry about the tenor in this country, where it’s very, very divisive."

The changes Mr. Trump brought to the Republican Party have been powerful in the political marketplace, giving the GOP the White House and protecting its Senate majority. Reading the Tuesday election results, political analysts found evidence that they had also changed the Democrats.

With his assertive style and focus on the “forgotten" men and women with weakened economic prospects, “the president accelerated the migration of upscale, suburban moderates into the Democratic Party and accelerated the migration of the white, working-class to the Republican fold," said David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The result, as seen in Mr. Biden’s victories in 10 of 14 states on Tuesday, was counterintuitive for a party whose candidates are pushing policies to the left of those of the Obama administration. When it comes to how voters view themselves, “the Democratic Party is less progressive than it was in 2016, not more," Mr. Wasserman said.

Exit polls in many states found a shift away from the party’s ideological edge, as more primary voters identified as moderate or conservative than in 2016, and fewer called themselves liberal. The share of moderate and conservative voters rose by 15 percentage points in Virginia, 6 points in Massachusetts, by three in Tennessee and Alabama and two in Texas—all states that Mr. Biden won. In addition to feelings about Mr. Trump, the lack of a competitive GOP primary may have prompted some moderate or conservative voters to participate in the Democratic primary. If so, that could suggest that while the pool of voters in Democratic primaries has become more moderate, the party retains a significant core of liberal members.

Mr. Trump agrees that voters are changing affiliation, but he sees movement to the GOP. “The insanity of the Democratic Party is why millions of registered Democrat voters are joining our movement. They are joining our great Republican Party," the president said late last month at a rally in South Carolina, where he criticized Democratic proposals to toughen gun regulations, relax immigration laws and replace private insurance with Medicare for All.

If patterns hold and some Republicans remain open to crossing party lines, the shift could have big implications for November. Democrats could have a larger pool of voters to appeal to as Mr. Trump tries to poach voters from core Democratic groups, such as African-Americans, Hispanics and working-class, white voters, who were once a pillar of the Democratic Party.

Exit polls from Super Tuesday and earlier contests showed that Mr. Sanders retained much of his coalition from 2016 of young voters and those calling themselves “very liberal." The returns also showed that he had added an important new group: Hispanic voters.

Excluding California due to its partial results, the Super Tuesday county that gave Mr. Sanders his largest vote margin was Saguache County, Colo., a rural community with a large Hispanic population, a poverty rate above the national average and household incomes well below the national median. The five counties in which Mr. Sanders improved most over his 2016 vote totals were all heavily Hispanic counties in Texas, near the border with Mexico.

Jennifer Allen, a Latino voter in San Antonio, said the Democratic Party had failed her, and she was ready for Mr. Sanders’s plans for government to take a more active role in helping people navigate the economy. A hairdresser who owns her own business, Ms. Allen, 51, said that she had never had health insurance and was stuck with a $15,000 tab for a kidney stone two years ago, which she said was sent to a collections agency, even though she had paid off two-thirds of the bill.

His policies would touch “everything that would affect my life personally,’’ she said.

Mr. Sanders’s coalition also has large shares of younger voters, as in 2016, when he carried 71% of Democratic primary voters under age 30, exit polls showed. On Tuesday, three of the five counties that gave Mr. Sanders his biggest vote share, outside of California, were college communities in Colorado and North Carolina.

In Minneapolis, 29-year-old Esther Park said her parents were carrying high medical debt, “which Bernie will be planning on eliminating." And she is carrying student debt, which Mr. Sanders would cancel. “That’s been preventing me from living my life to the fullest right now," she said.

In contrast to Mr. Sanders’s coalition, the five counties that gave Mr. Biden their biggest margins were all largely African-American communities in Virginia and Alabama, where he took 75% of the vote. Black voters have been a core part of his constituency, like that of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Mr. Biden’s coalition also includes voters in affluent suburbs. Many that showed big upticks in Super Tuesday voting had backed Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz over Mr. Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries. Then in 2018, they were part of the suburban wave that helped flip enough seats to give Democrats a majority in the U.S. House.

Though the number of party switchers is thought to be only a small share of the Democratic voter pool, analysts said this showed that at least some of the Democratic votes this week were coming from disaffected Republicans and independents. “The Democratic Party, in terms of who is in it now, is not as liberal as before in the sense that you have a lot of former Republicans who are now Democrats," said Doug Sosnik, a longtime strategist and White House aide to President Bill Clinton. “These are people who disproportionately are female, have higher education and live in suburban areas."

Mr. Sanders, asked Friday about Mr. Biden’s expansion of the electorate with suburban voters, said: “We’re doing the best that we can…this is a unique campaign in the modern history of this country."

Outside Washington, D.C., turnout rose 75% in populous Fairfax County, Va., one of the nation’s wealthiest. Like Ms. McIntosh, Republican Deb Schrag, a Fairfax County resident, cast her first-ever vote in a Democratic primary, backing Mr. Biden. “He has a calming effect. He’s not impetuous," she said.

Ms. Schrag, 55, who runs a surgery center, said she has been a lifelong member of the GOP and served as public-relations chairman of the college Republicans while a student at Virginia Tech.

In many cases, the Democratic Party can’t count on long-term support from Tuesday’s crossover votes. Ms. McIntosh and Ms. Schrag said they were not fully in the Democratic fold and might vote for Republican candidates down-ballot. “Absolutely," said Ms. McIntosh, “with pleasure."

—Dante Chinni contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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