CHARLESTON, S.C.—Comeback kid might be a stretch.
Joe Biden is a year younger than opponents Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg, but at 77, he’s still more of a Comeback Grandpa. Whatever you call him, he’s back in contention for the Democratic presidential nomination after a dominating victory in South Carolina.
It’s a victory he long predicted on the strength of his support in the Black community here, and one he needed to keep his campaign alive.
“All those of you who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden said to his supporters in Columbia, S.C. “We just won and we won big because of you. We are very much alive.”
With 81 per cent of the vote counted just before 10 p.m., the results were: Biden, 49 per cent; Sanders, 20 per cent; Tom Steyer, 12 per cent; Pete Buttigieg, eight per cent; Elizabeth Warren, seven per cent; and Amy Klobuchar, three per cent.
For the former vice-president who was initially expected to be the walk-away winner of the nomination, this state had become a must-win after also-ran finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second-place finish in Nevada one week ago. The question now is if this win can propel Biden to become the alternative to divisive front-runner Bernie Sanders — or even displace Sanders as the favourite.
The answer will be clear soon, as the race will be blown open when 14 states and one territory vote on March 3, “Super Tuesday.” After a month of caucuses and primaries in which 155 total delegates have been awarded, Tuesday’s states will see winners divide up 1,344 delegates — a third of the total pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July.
Sanders hosted the largest and most youthful rallies in South Carolina, but for the first time he failed to win the popular vote, which some may see as a sign of how dependable a predictor of electoral victory youthful enthusiasm is. But he also spent parts of the week hosting rallies in Super Tuesday giants Texas and California.
“You cannot win them all,” Sanders told a crowd of supporters Saturday night. “Tonight, we did not win in South Carolina. And that will not be the only defeat. There are a lot of states in this country. Nobody wins them all. I want to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory. And now, on to Super Tuesday.”
On Tuesday, billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg will finally join the field after spending more than $500 million (U.S.) in advertising while skipping the early primaries. His unconventional strategy and unprecedented spending have been a wild card hanging over the race. He saw his decent poll support plummet after a poor debate performance just under two weeks ago in which policies under his mayoralty in New York and his business career came under attack from the other candidates, particularly Warren.
Bloomberg’s performance Tuesday may show, among other things, just how damaging one terrible debate performance can be for a candidate who had been polling well. But the performance of Warren in South Carolina, and in Nevada last week after the debate, seems to show the limits of how effectively a strong debate performance can revive a campaign. Warren absolutely skewered Bloomberg and tied her attacks to her major campaign theme of the corrupting influence of money in politics. But two vote results later, she appears still to be lagging far behind.
Warren’s only conceivable path to victory now seems to be a contested convention where delegates could flock to her as a second-choice consensus candidate — something that could tear the party apart if Sanders’s supporters see it as stealing the nomination, but a path that she made clear again in comments in South Carolina that she will pursue.
Warren said in her speech Saturday night to supporters that her campaign is “built for the long haul and we are looking forward to these big contests.”
Tom Steyer’s third-place finish was a high-water mark for his campaign, reflecting months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent focusing on the state. With no prospects going forward, he announced Saturday night he’s dropping out of the race.
Pete Buttigieg, an early surprise as the winner of Iowa and second-place finisher in New Hampshire, now seems stagnant with low national polling numbers, squeezed between the resurgence of Biden, the dollars of Bloomberg and the dominance of Sanders.
Amy Klobuchar, who has been hanging on and hoping to break through with each passing contest, failed once again to make a mark in South Carolina and may soon run out of money and organizational strength as the race broadens quickly to more and bigger states, requiring a large-scale television budget to compete.
Voters in South Carolina this week told me health care was one of their top priorities in the race: they were weighing whether to socialize health insurance as promised by Sanders and Warren, or support the milder the alternative of expanding Obamacare’s private system with a “public option,” as favoured by Biden and the others.
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They also were discussing the best strategy to defeat Trump, either by offering a stark left-wing alternative to stir up excitement among younger voters (the “political revolution” offered by Sanders), or by pursuing a more moderate path to bring centrists who dislike Trump onside (as pitched by Biden, Bloomberg and Buttigieg).
In South Carolina, a Trump-voting state whose Democratic primary is defined by the majority of African-American voters in the party, the path of moderation led them to Biden — which in turn may have revived a campaign that appeared to be dying just weeks ago.
Biden has no time to sit back and enjoy it, as in three days we’ll see if it has made him, once again, a front-runner, or if it was a blip on Sanders’s march toward the nomination.