The End Is Near
Though it fell but three days before Super Tuesday, South Carolina’s primary was more than a skirmish on the road to a shootout. It served as both abattoir and augury, effectively dooming electoral stragglers while foreshadowing the fate of its principal survivors: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden—and the gunfighter who awaits them on Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg.
Predictably, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren foundered for lack of support from minority voters. Buttigieg has suspended his campaign and Klobuchar has no coalition to build on and no path through a Super Tuesday awash in diversity. She is a dead-candidate walking.
But South Carolina’s majority-minority electorate, commingled with mostly moderate whites, also illuminated how the leading contenders may fare—not only in California and Texas, but in southern states which are demographically akin. Most significant, the primary restored Joe Biden to life—expressed in a compelling victory speech which evoked his best self – and rekindled his hope of weathering Tuesday.
For days that seemed a near thing. His vaunted South Carolina firewall was crumbling in a cluster of narrowing polls which revealed a diminishing lead among African-Americans. Biden needed to win, and not by a hair’s breadth: in the Darwinian way of politics, donors and voters alike—not least black voters—began seeing him as roadkill-in-waiting. Enticed, Sanders chose to move in for the kill by upping his ad buy and targeting minority voters.
Two things lifted Biden. One was a full throated-endorsement on Wednesday morning from the state’s leading Democrat, the redoubtable African-American House Majority Whip, James Clyburn, whose doubts about Biden were outrun by his fears that a Sanders nomination would reduce him to minority whip. In Clyburn’s capacious wake, Sanders decamped for Massachusetts and Minnesota, preferring to harry Warren and Klobuchar before their home state primaries on Tuesday, rather than fight Biden to the end in the Palmetto state.
Clyburn’s political transfusion followed Biden’s restorative debate performance the evening before, during which he focused at last on Sanders’ multiple deficiencies. Here he was assisted by his moderate playmates, diverted from squabbling by their sudden awareness that Sanders was eating their lunch. Even America’s sweethearts, Pete and Amy, stopped calling each other names.
Biden was vigorous and engaged—a newly–comfortable presence who looked, dare we say it, presidential. Bloomberg summoned his most persuasive persona—a non-charismatic but seasoned leader in command of the facts. These are the moderates that matter.
Among the rest, in savaging Sanders, Buttigieg reprised his role as the best debater on stage. United with her bête noire by self-interest, Klobuchar followed suit.
But Warren exposed herself as a candidate in a box canyon all her own. Fearful of alienating Sanders supporters by attacking their leader, she replicated her prior fusillade on Bloomberg until it went from being remorseless to merely tiresome. Whatever good this tactical ferocity did her in Las Vegas has largely expended itself.
Steyer didn’t matter. He, not Bloomberg, was the billionaire interloper with no reason for being. On Saturday evening he found the grace to withdraw.
And Sanders? For the first time we saw him exposed to something remotely resembling the carpet-bombing Republicans would unleash in the fall.
The result was grimly instructive. Repeating his stentorian talking points, Sanders shouted and sputtered—at one point remonstrating the audience—until his Old Testament prophet routine began looking, if not unhinged, then at least unmoored. Caveat emptor, Democrats. Nominate Sanders, and this is who you get.
And so on Saturday Biden clobbered Sanders—a major boost propelled by an overwhelming margin among black voters. But Sanders’ second-place showing, while humbling, preserved his status as frontrunner—which was the goal of mischievous Republicans who crossed over to support him. Speeding ahead, the race is now effectively down to one democratic socialist versus two moderates—a ratio which prefigures more plurality wins for Sanders on Tuesday.
At issue are 14 primaries in all regions of the country, with varied demographics and wildly different voter eligibility rules—after which voters will have chosen almost 40 percent of the pledged delegates to the convention. Of these, the great prizes are demographically diverse: California (415), which is 40 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black; Texas (220), 39 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black; North Carolina (110), 22 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic; and Virginia (99), 20 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic.
In a fractured field, this bodes well for Sanders. He is expanding his reach across the party’s multi-racial base. Having assiduously cultivated Hispanics through smart messaging and grassroots organizing, he has outstripped Biden. He’s rising among African-Americans, especially the young. He was long since the strongest candidate with young people in general; he resonates with non-college whites. Whatever one thinks of his “political revolution,” voters know who he is.
But what makes Sanders formidable on Super Tuesday are structural advantages which exaggerate his raw vote pluralities. The Democrats proportional representation of delegates requires a 15 percent minimum, effectively eliminating all votes for candidates who fall short. This will likely make Sanders’s delegate haul far greater than his percentage of the popular vote—in any particular congressional district, Sanders could amass half the delegates by winning one quarter of the vote.
In sum, given that Biden, Bloomberg, and the walking dead are likely to divide up the rest, Sanders’ delegate lead over both men is likely to far exceed his relative percentage of the vote.
Further, early voting in California and Texas began several weeks back, when Sanders looked like more like a juggernaut. Early decisions tend to favor the perceived front runner, and Sanders has by far the most robust early turnout operation.
So what of Biden and Bloomberg?
In theory, Biden is by far the most unifying alternative. For better or worse, he has put 40-plus years of sweat equity into the party. Most Democrats like him and, in general, his policies are more popular than Sanders’ “political revolution.”
Granted, Biden is weak among young people. But, for many, he promises a stable administration run by a seasoned and temperate president—no small thing.
But Biden heads into Tuesday catching his breath. Until Saturday, he had to focus on South Carolina: as of then, the New York Times reports, he had not campaigned in any Super Tuesday state for over a month.
His campaign is cash-poor. His belated television advertising is meager. He has minimal staffing in any Super Tuesday state. He cannot maximize his considerable advantage with black voters in several southern primaries, or fully compete in other potentially congenial contests. His hopes this Tuesday rest on goodwill, name recognition, and a heady two-day shot of momentum.
Money is not Bloomberg’s problem; it’s the major source of his appeal. But, like Biden, Bloomberg is a more than plausible president. After an impressive career in business which spawned a plenteous and multifaceted philanthropy, he ran New York effectively for 12 years. One need not approve of it all to concede that, indeed, Mike can get it done.
As he must, Bloomberg is pointing to Super Tuesday; thereafter the race is set—or over. He is heavily staffed in every state. He spent a staggering $410 million on television, $31 million in Los Angeles and San Diego alone, including ads focused on presumably receptive suburbanites.
But that demographic is far from enough. Bloomberg is investing heavily in outreach to the African-Americans Biden desperately needs—opening field offices, rolling out endorsements from black office holders, and running targeted media. Similarly, Bloomberg has prioritized the Latinos who Sanders has courted so assiduously. The question is whether he can persuade minority voters that he has the best chance to beat Trump—and become a president they can trust.
As a billionaire party-switcher tarred by insoluble past offenses regarding race and gender, Bloomberg is anathema to many progressives—hence Elizabeth Warren’s progressively monotonous loathing. Bloomberg is the perfect target for Sanders’ stock jeremiads, and he lacks Biden’s warmth and accessibility. But he’s smart and resourceful and, for Democrats who fear Sanders, money can not only buy love, but forgiveness. And, Sanders aside, only Bloomberg has the capacity to fight all the way to Milwaukee.
Either Biden or Bloomberg will struggle to get there.
The challenges for both are daunting and immediate. The latest polls give Sanders an insurmountable lead in California, with Warren a distant second. But Tuesday’s overall conundrum for Biden and Bloomberg stems from balkanization among Bernie’s competitors: Across the map Sanders has built a broad, but not overwhelming, coalition, while the moderates and Warren split the majority of the votes.
Texas captures the problem. An average of the three latest surveys puts Sanders ahead with 28 percent of the vote—but with Biden and Bloomberg splitting 40 percent and Buttigieg and Klobuchar dividing another 10 percent. To the extent one credits them, polls in other states replicate this pattern, though with notable local variations. North Carolina looks like a dogfight between Biden, Bloomberg, and Sanders. In Utah, Sanders leads Bloomberg and Buttigieg. Oklahoma seems to favor Bloomberg; Sanders should easily win Maine and his home state of Vermont.
But Sanders is threatening Warren and Klobuchar in their own home states, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Arkansas appears close between Bloomberg and Biden. In Virginia, Biden may have surpassed Sanders and Bloomberg. In Colorado, Sanders is set to trounce Warren.
Surprises happen. South Carolina could boost Biden on Tuesday; money well-spent could propel Bloomberg’s ascent. Taken together, both men could blunt Sanders’ rise. But there is almost no scenario in which, on Wednesday morning, Sanders does not have a significant plurality of pledged delegates.
After that the only questions will be whether or not his lead seems prohibitive and who remains to mount a credible challenge? Oh, and this: How big a problem would Sanders be as the nominee come November?
If you believe his moderate rivals, “big” doesn’t cover the consequences to come. “If you keep on going,” Bloomberg admonished the others during last week’s debate, “we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And [the White House] and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red.”
Klobuchar went further still: “If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart,” she warned, “we’re going to watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing our country apart.”
Here’s looking at you, Amy.
If the moderates believe what they say about Sanders, yet keep running past Tuesday, they will virtually guarantee that Sanders wins the nomination without coming close to winning a majority of primary voters—effectively handing Donald Trump a second term. By their own measure, each owes their country—and posterity—a clear-eyed look in the mirror.
The history of selflessness among presidential aspirants is slight. Take the GOP also-rans of early 2016, whose myopia and self-absorption secured their footnote in history as the towel boys for America’s most destructive president. That lacerating prospect should repel the Democrats of 2020—every last one of them.
Buttigieg led the way on Sunday evening. Klobuchar should scour her soul Tuesday night—if not before. Give Biden and Bloomberg one more day to better sort out between the two of them who is strong enough to continue, and who is big enough to step aside.
For any and all, this reckoning won’t be easy. That’s why it’s seldom done. But history won’t wait: For any to decide any later is too late, and while two moderates against Sanders is better than four, it’s still one too many.
If the last Democrats standing choose to listen, Super Tuesday will tell them what to do.