In the second primary of his third presidential race, Joe Biden finally notched a win that was 32 years in the making. South Carolina came through for the former vice president, and it was the first time he won either a primary or a caucus in his life-spanning quest for the Oval Office. Biden’s victory handed frontrunner Bernie Sanders the first real setback of his 2020 campaign, but with Super Tuesday on the horizon, the effect may prove short-lived.
Polls prior to the vote strongly suggested Biden was headed for a big win in the state he considered a firewall for his flagging campaign, and in this instance, the polls were right on the money. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Biden pulled down 48.4 percent of the vote to Sanders’s 19.9 percent, a yawning 28.5-point margin between first and second place.
Biden won all 46 counties in South Carolina. More importantly, he avoided a damaging generational split of Black voters, winning the votes of both those who are 45 and older and those who are 44 and younger. It was the kind of tub-thumping victory his campaign desperately needed. His surrogates wasted no time making the argument that it was time for Mike Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to tip their caps and head down the dugout stairs and out of the game.
This was not a difficult argument to make. Buttigieg pulled down a paltry 8.2 percent in South Carolina, Klobuchar did worse at 3.1 percent, and Tulsi Gabbard barely registered on the tally at 1.3 percent. Elizabeth Warren, considered by many to be the best progressive alternative to Sanders, came in fifth behind Buttigieg at 7.1 percent. Mike Bloomberg was not on the South Carolina ballot, so his own reckoning with the voters is yet to come, but arguments for his ongoing presence in the race grow thin in the face of a resurgent Biden campaign.
To put it in starker terms, billionaire candidate Tom Steyer outperformed all the candidates on the ballot aside from Biden and Sanders, coming in third with 11.3 percent. Yet Steyer did some math, analyzed his odds, and dropped out of the race on Saturday night.
“I said that if I didn’t see a path to winning,” Steyer told his supporters after the results were in, “I would suspend my campaign. And I honestly don’t see a path.” With the billionaire in third place headed for the exits, the folks in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place faced the Sunday morning dawn with some profound existential queries arrayed before them.
South Carolina Democrats clearly were not wooed by Sanders’s or Warren’s talk of political revolution, nor were they swayed by arguments made by the “centrist” candidates not named Biden. Each and every county in that state gave the Biden campaign its blessing, and on the doorstep of Super Tuesday, instructed him to go forth and do likewise.
For the Biden campaign, the real challenge begins now. Desperate for a win to scratch out some semblance of momentum and keep skittish mega-donors from bolting to another candidate, Biden poured all of his energy and attention into South Carolina. In doing this, he neglected the vast swath of Super Tuesday states and their rich delegate hordes.
“Interviews with party leaders in half a dozen Super Tuesday states suggest that the same vulnerabilities that plagued Mr. Biden beginning in Iowa — subpar organization, limited outreach to local Democrats and a late start to campaigning — are holding him back in the states that next week will dole out a third of the total delegates in the Democratic primary,” reported The New York Times this past Wednesday.
Put plainly, the Biden campaign threw everything it had into South Carolina and ignored the long-term implications of neglecting hugely important 3/3 states like California and Texas. Anyone who has used a credit card to pay the bill for another credit card knows full well the desperation that ultimately motivated what Biden did on Saturday night.
Biden dug himself a deeper hole hoping for enough momentum to make him relevant on Tuesday. If it doesn’t work, he will be paying the bill for the bill he just paid, and that is the kind of circle that usually leads to a drain.
Sanders, for his part, gave a conciliatory “You cannot win ‘em all” speech from Virginia Beach on Saturday night and congratulated Biden on his victory. By Sunday morning, Sanders’s campaign had announced a gargantuan $46.5 million donation haul for the month of February — $4.5 million pulled in on Saturday alone — and had begun making ad buys in states beyond Super Tuesday. The financial strength of his campaign was thoroughly undamaged by the results in South Carolina.
In 72 hours, a full third of available delegates will have been allotted. If Elizabeth Warren loses in Massachusetts on Tuesday, a distinct possibility, her reasons for continuing her campaign will have become gossamer thin. If she drops out, the most likely destination for a majority of her voters will be in Sanders’s column going forward.
Likewise, Klobuchar and Buttigieg won’t have much of an argument for slogging on if they absorb a wipeout at the 3/3 polls similar to what happened to them in South Carolina. Should they call it a day after a poor Super Tuesday showing, their voters are likely to flock to Biden’s banner.
Mike Bloomberg will be on the ballot for the first time on Tuesday, but his obscenely financed campaign juggernaut has not fared well when the candidate himself steps into the daylight. Biden’s strength in South Carolina could motivate voters who have been lifeboating with Bloomberg to break back home, making the other billionaire in the Democratic race as ultimately irrelevant as Steyer.
Tuesday will be the test of it, but South Carolina made Joe Biden relevant again while leaving Bernie Sanders largely undamaged. The winnowing is set to begin in earnest, at last, and this race will almost certainly look far different next weekend than it does today.
A final Bernie v. Biden contest is coalescing, but will depend on the other candidates choosing to step aside and putting their ambitions on hold “for the good of the party.” That “good” will be in the eye of the candidate beholder going forward, and it’s a long road to the convention in Wisconsin. For the moment, Biden has a long-sought victory in hand as all eyes turn to Tuesday.