After South Carolina

Joe Biden chose the right time to win a primary for the first time in three attempts at the presidency. Or maybe a better way to put it is if Biden hadn’t won South Carolina yesterday, it would have been his last presidential primary. Instead, by finishing almost thirty points ahead of Bernie Sanders, Biden dominated in South Carolina and breathed new life into his flagging campaign. Over the past few days, Biden has been campaigning like he actually wanted to win the presidency and not like someone who is running out of a sense of obligation. Perhaps that burst of enthusiasm and newfound focus helped drive up his numbers in South Carolina, where the playing field was heavily tilted in his direction. Biden has a long history in the state and the older African American electorate that turned out yesterday was customized to his strengths. He had long said that South Carolina would be his firewall, and with fire about to consume his campaign, he needed it. 

Biden hopes to use his massive South Carolina victory to consolidate establishment Democrats in his camp in an effort to prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming the Democratic nominee. He hammered these intentions in a fiery victory speech in Columbia last night, calling his supporters “the heart of the Democratic Party” and saying the options are to “win big” by building an inclusive coalition or lose by nominating a candidate who’s promising a revolution that “most Americans don’t want.”

This has been Biden’s pitch all along, and it resonates among mainstream Democrats with an urgency it did not have before Sanders emerged as the party frontrunner. Still, there is a gaping hole in the center of Biden’s claim that the way he wins is by “bringing Americans together of every race, ethnicity, gender, economic station, Democrats, Republicans, independents, people of every stripe, just like we did here in South Carolina.” That hole, of course, is Biden didn’t come anywhere close to building a diverse coalition in South Carolina any more than Bernie did in a Nevada electorate dominated by younger blue collar Latino voters or Mayor Pete did in predominately white Iowa and New Hampshire. 

This won’t stop party regulars from trying to turbocharge Biden’s victory. After Michael Bloomberg’s disastrous debate debut, the preferred alignment of the conventional class is a revitalized Biden as the front man with Bloomberg’s billions powering his general election campaign. For this to happen, Biden would have to be the beneficiary of a momentum boost in a year when victories in one state have not carried over to the next. Pete’s delegate edge in Iowa did not translate into a New Hampshire win just like Bernie’s Nevada blowout did not help him last night. It could be different for Biden if establishment support coalesces behind him, but the reason we haven’t seen a bandwagon effect take hold is precisely because no candidate has built the kind of coalition Biden has promised. 

And South Carolina did not erase Biden’s other weaknesses. He is still powered by the same organization that produced brutal fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, which would have ended his candidacy in any other cycle. Yesterday’s win will help him replenish his dry coffers, but not in time to make a difference when the campaign turns national on Tuesday. Biden bet everything on South Carolina, dumping $1 million into the tiny state with only $600,000 available for advertising in the 14 Super Tuesday states combined. Bernie, in contrast, has spent $15.5 million on Super Tuesday advertising. Bloomberg has spent $183 million. 

Then there is the delegate math, which remains Sanders’ best friend. Consider that Biden overpowered Bernie yesterday, taking almost half the vote to Bernie’s 20%. But with only two candidates clearing the 15% eligibility threshold, Bernie walked away with 25% of the delegates and maintained his lead overall. Biden surged into second place but nonetheless lags behind after about as convincing a victory as you’re going to see this year. Unless and until a candidate actually builds a coalition that can appeal across constituencies, this is likely to remain a delegate hunt rather than a contest won on momentum. That means 15% remains the magic number, not the number of states won. Tom Steyer dropped out yesterday when he did not see a path to add to the zero delegates he had won in the first four contests. 

Had Bernie prevailed in South Carolina, it would have propelled him to a first-ballot nomination. He still sits atop the only coalition that can compete nationally, even as South Carolina demonstrated the limits of its depth. Had Biden won narrowly, he would have hobbled into Super Tuesday wounded and weak. In light of his commanding win, he is once again a serious player. This leaves four key questions to be answered before the wild and unconventional 2020 contest finally comes into focus. They will be answered next week:

  • What happens when Michael Bloomberg is on the ballot? With polls showing Bloomberg taking a share of the African American vote from Biden, it was a tactical mistake for him not to compete in South Carolina, where his presence would have cut into Biden’s victory and shaped the narrative going into Super Tuesday. Will the African American support he had been building still be there after Biden’s win? Will his domination of the Super Tuesday airwaves make him viable in enough states to give him the delegate base he will need to be a factor if the convention goes to multiple ballots? Bloomberg doesn’t need the most delegates to win the nomination. He just needs enough to prevent anyone from getting a first ballot victory. His strategy depends on Biden’s weakness and was complicated by the magnitude of Biden’s South Carolina win. But he has a path if can convert his millions into enough 15% finishes on Tuesday.
  • Does Warren re-emerge or disappear? Warren’s path to the nomination depends on being the acceptable compromise in a contested convention deadlocked between two camps. This long shot strategy depends on having a delegate presence after Tuesday’s balloting, which will be possible only if she reaches viability in California and very likely will require the narrative boost of winning her home state of Massachusetts (there is a reason why Bernie held a massive rally in Boston yesterday). Then, as other candidates drop out she would need to win over enough of their supporters to regularly compete above the 15% level and continue to collect delegates, counting on her potential to dominate the debate stage when it dwindles to three or four participants to get voters to give her a second look. Strategies that take this long to explain often don’t work out. If voters see her as an afterthought next Tuesday it will be the end of the line, although this has been an atypical year. 
  • What happens to Amy and Pete? I had difficulty seeing how Klobuchar could scale her campaign to compete nationally after being the center of media attention in New Hampshire, and it’s been hard to see a path forward for her for weeks even if she wins her home state of Minnesota. Buttigieg as expected has not done well in states with a smaller proportion of white voters, and he is unlikely to fix this in the next two days. Whether he stays in after Tuesday will depend on how many delegates he picks up, even if he is not favored to win anywhere, and whether it will be enough to make him a player in a contested convention. His prospects are better than Amy’s but they are not good.
  • Will we have a contested convention? The outcome of the nomination process turns on this question, which should finally be answered on Tuesday. Keep your eyes on California. It has the largest delegate prize of Tuesday or any day, and Sanders is in a commanding position there. If Bloomberg cuts into Biden’s vote tally in the southern contests, Bernie could emerge from Super Tuesday as the presumptive nominee with a delegate lead too great for anyone to catch. Or, he could emerge as the delegate leader but well short of victory, needing to win an overwhelming proportion of outstanding delegates in a field where two, three or four candidates remain standing. If this happens, it would take an alliance between or among those candidates to prevent a second ballot in Milwaukee. Either way, the dynamic that has structured this contest from the beginning remains in place: a party that wants to win more than anything cannot agree on how to do it, with the “go big” and “go back” camps heading for a showdown where victory in November turns on how well they can reconcile their different visions.