The big crunch: For 2020 Dems, March is key in delegate race

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Voters wait in line at an early polling site in San Antonio, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Friday is the final day for early voting and Election Day is Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – March is crunch time for Democratic presidential candidates, with a nominee likely to emerge over the next several weeks, if not sooner.

Nearly two-thirds of the party’s national delegates are up for grabs in a 30-day time period starting with Saturday’s South Carolina primary. The biggest prizes come on Tuesday, when 1,344 delegates will be at stake in 14 states and American Samoa.

If one candidate can emerge from Super Tuesday with a significant lead in the delegate count, it would be very difficult for anyone to catch up. If that same candidate racks up big victories the following two weeks, when 10 more states and the Northern Mariana Islands have contests, the race would be all but over.

Bernie Sanders is the clear front-runner after winning New Hampshire and Nevada, and essentially tying with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. If any of the other candidates hope to stop him, they have to start now.

“Starting with Super Tuesday, we shift from the momentum race to the delegate race,” Virginia Tech political scientist Caitlin Jewitt said in an email. She said during the next month, “if Sanders can rapidly amass delegates and expand his delegate lead, it is more likely that his competitors will begin to see his nomination as inevitable and withdraw from the race.”

It takes 1,991 pledged delegates to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot at the party’s national convention this summer. The first three contests yielded only a handful of delegates, giving Sanders 45. He’s followed by Buttigieg with 25 delegates, Joe Biden with 15, Elizabeth Warren with eight and Amy Klobuchar with seven.

The bustling field helps Sanders, and it’s going to get more crowded on Tuesday, when former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is on ballots for the first time.

Democrats award delegates proportionally, and candidates must get at least 15% of the vote, either statewide or in individual congressional districts, to win delegates. The system rewards top candidates in a crowded field and then makes it hard to catch them once the field shrinks.