Even though Senator Bernie Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa, then won an outright victory in the New Hampshire primary and followed up with a blowout in the caucuses in Nevada, many mainstream commentators, at least those that didn’t succumb to panic, found fault with each of these wins ahead of last Saturday’s vote in South Carolina.
There was none of the skepticism we saw after each Sanders victory when South Carolina’s primary was called very early for Joe Biden, who was able to give his victory speech in prime time, something Senator Sanders was denied during the first three contests. Although Biden was long expected to win the state, little was made of Sanders’ 2nd place finish, unlike earlier contests in which some in American media tried to spin even 3rd place finishes into wins for candidates like Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
While Biden put in his best performance so far at the South Carolina debate on February 29th, this is a very low bar and didn’t seem to be a major influence on the vote there 4 days later. It’s sometimes the case that those of us who obsessively follow politics overstate the importance of these events, especially early on when they draw relatively small numbers of viewers in terms of even those Americans who consider themselves Democrats and vote in primaries.
Although both candidates had similar leads in the last two contests before Super Tuesday, Biden’s victory in what was admittedly a more delegate rich state, was the one that pundits and cable news talking heads insisted was a game changer, as his support there was said to more fairly represent the Democratic Party as a whole.
While there is certainly a lot of value in looking at the South Carolina result in terms of the African Americans who are the base of the Democratic Party there, it should be remembered that most of these voters are older and more conservative than many of their peers in the country as a whole.
At the same time, it’s also true that Democrats have not won South Carolina in a presidential contest since 1976. This is indicative of the actual importance of the southern states that were a major factor on Tuesday for Biden but most of which will almost certainly be won by the current occupant of the White House in the general election regardless of who the eventual nominee is.
One major factor in the former vice president’s favor in South Carolina was the endorsement of Jim Clyburn, the Democratic House Majority Whip, which 61% of those in exit polling said was a major reason why they voted Biden. This successful endorsement was followed by an interesting development beginning a couple of days before Super Tuesday: a flood of them for the South Carolina winner.
Two candidates, Senator Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, along with the almost forgotten Beto O’Rourke. Other endorsements that came just before Tuesday, including those of former Virginia governor Terry McAullife, California Senator Barbara Boxer and former speaker of the House Harry Reid, probably helped Biden win over the relatively affluent, mostly white, suburban vote in many states that seemed to be another major determinant in the former VP’s Super Tuesday victories.
Biden received yet another endorsement on Wednesday, when the plutocratic former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg also dropped out after failing to win any primary beyond the caucuses in American Samoa, creating the possibility of a serious influx of money into the former VP’s cash strapped campaign.
In good news for Sanders, the Vermont Senator did remarkably well with Latinx voters, propelling him to victory in the most delegate rich state, California, although it may be weeks before we know the actual margin. With Colorado, Vermont and Utah in tow, the race is still extremely close with many states, large and small, yet to go to the polls, including many in the industrial Midwest, like Michigan, that could play an important role in an eventual Sanders victory.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night for Sanders supporters was the loss in Texas, where he also got almost 40% of the Latinx vote, but, as Marlee Kokotovic wrote on this site yesterday, hundreds of polling places in the state were closed, mainly where minority voters would have cast their ballots, arguably a massive case of voter suppression that likely hurt the Sanders campaign.
Another thing that may help the Vermont Senator moving forward is that the other progressive in the race, Elizabeth Warren dropped out yesterday, which could bring some of her supporters over to Sanders, though she has not yet endorsed either of the two men still in the campaign with a shot of winning.
Warren supporters should also be politely reminded that besides opposing the Massachusetts senator over the terrible bankruptcy bill he championed, the former VP has a history of inappropriately touching women and that he included the Violence Against Women Act in his 1994 crime bill to force through legislation that was ruinous to the people of color who are so important to a Democratic victory come November.
Further, now there will be no hiding on a crowded stage for the former vice president, who has a host of problems that have not been part of the media narrative, including a penchant for exaggeration and even straying far from the truth in his ‘story-telling’ on the campaign trail. While this is somewhat common among politicians, especially middle of the road candidates, most are more subtle in their lies than Biden.
This was on view in late February in a story the former vice president told about Nelson Mandela in the telling of which he said he’d been arrested by Apartheid-era South African authorities for attempting to visit the revered freedom fighter when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. This lie was undercut by him saying that his arrest had taken place in Soweto, which is hundreds of miles away. He further embellished the tale by saying that Mandela had personally thanked him for his fictional efforts, highly unlikely considering the man’s isolation at the time even if the former part of the story were true.
Finally, there is also the fact, though it is considered impolite to state it outright, that at one point the former vice president didn’t know what state he was in and when making his speech on Super Tuesday, mistook his sister for his wife, just two of dozens of examples of memory lapses that go beyond the ‘gaffes’ he was already famous for.
In terms of a general election against the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sanders supporters need to get the message out to Democratic voters that Biden will be hammered by him and his surrogates for his enthusiastic support of trade deals like NAFTA that have been so ruinous for the American working class.
From his routine bipartisan support for wars of choice to criminal justice to bankruptcy law and bank bailouts over more than 3 decades, Joe Biden has been wrong by progressive standards on almost every issue. Senator Sanders on the other hand, has been consistently right and has worked within the system to create progressive amendments to legislation throughout his career.
While Tuesday must have felt like a terrible loss for American progressives, Sanders is still in a better place than he was during the same period in 2016 and the race is filled with variables that may favor the Vermont progressive in the end. The candidate himself seems to have changed his messaging to go directly after former Vice President Biden on his long, and mostly politically expedient, record.
Only time will tell if this, along with the enthusiastic movement that is committed to his campaign, will be enough.