South Carolina Reset
The wind was seemingly at Sanders’ back going into South Carolina, where he expected to give Biden a run for his money. The Biden campaign had long considered South Carolina to be the primary that would prove their candidate’s worth to the American public, but Sanders’ early victories sowed doubts. In the end, Biden didn’t just win South Carolina – he blew his competitors away –taking 49% of the vote. The polls were once again off. Way off.
Super Tuesday and The Biden Resurgence
Biden’s South Carolina win changed the direction of the Democratic primary contest. In advance of Super Tuesday – primary elections in 14 states plus American Samoa – a previously crowded field of moderates was thinned out by the departure of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg, both of whom endorsed Biden. This created a field that more evenly split between two progressives – Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – and two moderates, Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
For Biden, Super Tuesday delivered one of the more remarkable campaign comebacks in American political history. A campaign that days earlier had been written off as dead became the top contender for the Democratic nomination – with surprising wins in Minnesota and Massachusetts and a sweep of Southern states including Texas, the day’s second biggest delegate prize. Meanwhile, Sanders achieved a victory in California – home to Super Tuesday’s largest delegate prize. He also won Vermont, Colorado, and Utah. Warren and Bloomberg? Not so great. Neither candidate won a state – although Bloomberg won five delegates in American Samoa. Bloomberg ended his campaign on March 4.
The Road Ahead for Democrats
After Warren’s withdrawal announcement on March 5, the tumultuous race for the Democratic presidential nomination has come down to Biden and Sanders.
Super Tuesday seemed to confirm a central truth for Democrats – they want to nominate someone they believe can beat President Trump in November 2020. Everything else – healthcare, infrastructure, taxes, social programs – is secondary. Exit polls from many of the states Biden won suggested that 50-60% of people had not made up their mind on who they would vote for days (or minutes) before casting their ballot. The overwhelming strategy for most moderate voters was to vote for the momentum candidate viewed as having a chance to beat Trump – and that was Biden. Had Biden not beat Sanders by almost 30 points in South Carolina it is likely that the moderate vote would have been split so many ways that Sanders would have rolled to victory and clinched the nomination.
Notably, a true front-runner did not emerge until there was a primary in a state with a diverse population. The endorsement of Representative Jim Clyburn, combined with a well-established political network formed in part by the campaigns of former President Barack Obama, helped Biden to earn the support of black voters in South Carolina. On Super Tuesday, Biden also earned the support of the majority of black voters in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Alabama.
What’s more, Sanders did not bring out the youth vote as expected. In fact, the youth vote was down from 2016. If young voters do not show up for the remaining primaries, it will could prove a major blow to the Sanders campaign.
Additionally, Sanders’ primary wins have not been as strong as Biden’s primary wins. Bernie won California, Colorado, and Utah with percentages in the mid-30s – but Biden won states with percentages in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. If Sander’s campaign wants to maintain a competitive delegate count with Biden through the remainder of the primary season, they will have to put up bigger numbers, or could find themselves mathematically eliminated from the race by the end of March.
Debating a Pandemic
The March 15 debate between Sanders and Biden made for a surreal scene, as the candidates argued the issues without a live television audience. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the discussion. Sanders used the issue to draw attention to his criticism of the US healthcare system and his plan for universal coverage. Biden, by contrast, focused on criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak and stressed his belief in the importance of international alliances.
The 2020 presidential campaign landscape is changing every day. As the stakes get higher – particularly in light of the COVID-19 situation – the drama will escalate. The real question for Democrats is, after the primaries are over and the a winner is announced, can that person beat what many view as a strong incumbent candidate in President Trump? Stay tuned.
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