Welp, folks, with 100% of the vote in, Joe Biden has decisively won the South Carolina primary. He beat Bernie Sanders by a large margin: 48.4% to 19.9%. He carried every single county. A truly remarkable win for a former frontrunner who desperately, desperately needed it.
Where do things go from here? I’m not entirely sure. Earlier in the day, before the polls closed, Biden told press that “the bigger the win, the bigger the bump” he expects to see in Super Tuesday states. This is clearly a large win, yet a lot of Super Tuesday states have been doing early voting for days or weeks by now; it’s going to be hard for much of a shift in big states like California and Texas to materialize. There’s also the question of the health of Biden’s campaign: press reports have casted doubts on the Biden infrastructure in upcoming states, and it’s widely believed in South Carolina political circles that Biden’s win is credited more to Representative Clyburn’s late endorsement than any messaging or organizing brilliance. (Clyburn, for his part, bluntly told CNN today that Biden’s campaign was “mishandled” and needed retooling.)
So Super Tuesday is likely still going to be a grind for Biden. The lasting impact of tonight will likely be consolidation of moderate support around Biden. The other moderate candidates—namely Buttigieg and Klobuchar—were all destroyed by Biden and will leave the state with few if any delegates. You can’t build a coalition without black support; Sanders also performed badly tonight, but he at least can point to strong support among black voters nationally. I’m not sure if we will see any high-profile dropouts before Super Tuesday, but unless something significantly changes between then and now, I don’t think the other moderates will stick around for much longer. And that’s what I’d be really worried about if I was in Camp Sanders: he’s strongly benefited from a divided moderate field, and there are a number of upcoming states that would be more difficult to win if it was just between him and Biden.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that tonight set the stage for a protracted Sanders-Biden fight, a bitter ideological struggle that may well drag on until the convention in the Summer. There are two wildcards here: Warren and Bloomberg. Bloomberg, coming off two disastrous debate performances and weeks of bad press, looks much less invincible than he did last month. By Tuesday night, we should have some idea of how viable Bloomberg’s bizzare run actually is.
Warren, for reasons that completely elude me, seems content driving a scorched earth path straight to the convention. In her speech tonight, she attacked Sanders—her closest ideological peer—as a political figure that “consistently calls for things he fails to get done, and consistently opposes things he nevertheless fails to stop.” As for future contests, she said “Super Tuesday is three days away and we’re looking forward to gaining as many delegates to the convention as we can,” again openly gesturing to the idea of getting the nomination at a brokered convention, even without winning a single state. It’s an ugly, bizarre twist in her campaign, and it remains to be seen whether this is the last gasps of a failed candidacy or a campaign that’s about to go full Jonestown.
A year ago, before Bloomberg and before four high-profile Senators flamed out and before coronavirus, national polls showed a tight race between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Billions of dollars later, we may be returning to that early dynamic.