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Four takeaways from Joe Biden’s South Carolina victory

After Tuesday, ALL the other candidates will either drop out or become zombies unless they actually win something

February 29, 2020

9:35 PM

29 February 2020

9:35 PM

1) Joe Biden lives to fight another day, bloopers, gaffes, and all. But on Tuesday he needs to win a major state or finish a strong second to seize the spot as Bernie Sanders’s chief competitor.

Biden’s poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire meant the South Carolina primary was his last stand. His recent polling showed his lead was small and decreasing. So the stakes were high and the situation dire. But the former VP was right to go all-in for South Carolina, which he always called his firewall. His loyalty to President Obama and his endorsement by Rep. James Clyburn were crucial in a state with a large African American population. Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in the House of Representatives, is widely respected in his home state of South Carolina, and he revered in the black community. His backing and his political network helped Biden immensely. So did Biden’s relatively moderate positions, which are more popular among African-Americans than Bernie’s harsh radicalism.

2) Biden’s victory calls into question Mike Bloomberg’s basic ‘theory of the case’, which was that Biden was too weak to survive and would leave the middle of the field open after his candidacy collapsed.

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Bloomberg was only half right. He was right that there is no strong, fresh candidate in the middle lane. Mayor Pete Buttigieg did well in Iowa but hasn’t caught fire and has little support among key minority constituencies. Amy Klobuchar hasn’t done well, either. For now, then, it looks like Biden is Mayor Mike’s main obstacle in that lane.

But Bloomberg was wrong that Biden would drop out quickly or that the former New York mayor’s huge advertising budget could hide his glaring defects as a retail politician. He was wrong, too, in deciding to debate twice before Super Tuesday. To call him a poor debater is a vast understatement. He was fairly effective in CNN’s one-on-one town hall last week, but he was dreadful in the multi-candidate debates, which were more like food fights than intelligent discussions of public policy. Bloomberg is, at heart, a corporate manager, and he sounds like one.

Bloomberg chose not to enter the early primaries and, instead, bet everything on Super Tuesday, where advertising is expensive and his deep pockets give him a huge advantage. When the results come in, we’ll see if his wager pays off. Unless he wins a major state or finishes a strong second, he will need to consider whether to stay in the race, slug it out with Biden, and split the vote in the middle lane. Significantly, Bloomberg has not yet purchased advertising for primaries beyond next Tuesday.

3) Sanders’s vote in South Carolina showed no strength among African American and no improvement over his last run. In Nevada, however, he showed considerable strength among the Democrats’ other big minority constituency, Latinos. That means Bernie and Biden are splitting the party’s two crucial minorities.

4) After Tuesday, ALL the other candidates will either drop out or become zombies unless they actually win something. Finishing a close second is probably not enough, though Mayor Pete could make the case he should stay (if he has the money) because he won Iowa. Tom Steyer, who went all-in for South Carolina and pandered shamelessly for the minority vote there, was correct to drop out immediately after his dismal showing. Nobody wants him. His voter can go elsewhere, and Steyer can return to impeaching Trump, which didn’t work out well, either.

The biggest questions after Super Tuesday are whether Bernie Sanders has an insurmountable lead and whether the race is pared down to two candidates.  Establishment Democrats are in panic over the prospect of Sanders leading the ticket. They fear losses all down the ballot. But they also fear splitting the party if Bernie comes to the convention with far more votes and delegates than his competitors and is fairly close to a majority. His supporters would claim they had won the contest and, if he was not nominated, that it was stolen from them. They might say the same thing if Bernie held only a modest lead over his nearest competitor and was further from a majority, but their claim would be shakier.

We’ll know a lot more on Wednesday morning. But on Saturday night, Old Joe Biden’s balloon went up.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.


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