South Carolina is the new Iowa
The dramatic shift in the primary that happened yesterday on Super Tuesday began on Saturday in South Carolina. One way to read that setup is that the party used South Carolina for Biden the way that they used Iowa for Obama in 2008 and Kerry in 2004, and the way they used to use primaries for a lot of candidates – as signals of electoral strength.
Before the McGovern-Fraser reforms made the primaries so important for winning delegates, party leaders used primaries as a way to test candidates' abilities to win. The classic example is John Kennedy in 1960, whose win in West Virginia convinced party leaders, many of them very enthusiastic about Kennedy, that the Catholic could win among Protestants.
In 2004, party leaders were not that excited about Howard Dean, who still led in early polling. But who was best positioned to stop Dean, John Kerry, John Edwards or someone else? After Iowa, Kerry was the choice.
In 2020, Joe Biden was the preferred candidate of a lot of party leaders, but they were clearly holding back. His soft polling and weak showing in Iowa left some cautious. But a commanding performance in South Carolina seemed to convince them.
This year, I'm taking Georgetown students on a tour of early state nomination contests. In South Carolina, we saw the end of the early states, culminating in Joe Biden's victory rally. Here are some observations from those students. (We were in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada earlier in the month.)
Joe Biden and the Unbelievable, Phenomenal, Sensational, Very Good Week
The word perfect falls short in describing Joe Biden’s miraculous last week. The Joe-mentum started on Tuesday’s South Carolina debate. Joe outlined a case for himself as the candidate best positioned to defeat Donald Trump. Many pundits declared Biden the winner of the debate.
Biden followed that with a CNN town hall, when the widowed husband of a victim of gun violence asked him about how his faith informs his decisions. Biden spoke emotionally and movingly about seeking faith in South Carolina after losing his son, Beau, to cancer. The clip went viral on Twitter.
The next day, Biden received the coveted and crucial endorsement of Congressman Jim Clyburn, an influential South Carolinian legislator. According to exit polls, the endorsement was an important factor for 61% of South Carolinian primary voters.
Then election night in South Carolina. The results would either be the final nail in his campaign’s coffin or resuscitate the struggling campaign. Some polling had Biden up around 4 points, so many Biden supporters were praying for a double-digit win.
At the Biden victory event, supporters counted down the polls' closing and then within seconds MSNBC on the large-screen TV's projected he was the winner. The room erupted into cheers. The victory reflected the best-case scenario win for him.
Biden then gave what might be the best speech of his campaign thus far. Moving, persuasive, and empathetic, Biden spoke on finding purpose in tragedy, referencing both his late son and his so-called “dying” campaign.
Fundraising dollars flowed in towards Biden, as moderate supporters seemingly coalesced around him. Endorsements from all over the country followed. to Biden. Fellow moderates (and mortal enemies) Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race—and both endorsed Biden. As a bonus, Texas-superstar Beto O’Rourke endorsed Joe Biden and treated him to a Texas delicacy in a Whataburger meal. This is what set up Super Tuesday.
Why didn’t Bernie Sanders Perform Better in the South Carolina Primary?
The South Carolina primary was an indisputable and necessary victory for the Biden campaign. Heading into the primary, most people were pretty confident that Joe Biden would win the state, but it was not clear what kind of victory it would be. There was the potential for Bernie’s big win among voters of color in Nevada to influence the decision of the voters in South Carolina, and yet, it did not. Instead, Biden won the state by a 30 point margin.
Now, the question that I find myself pondering is: How did Bernie lose by such a large margin? Looking back on the few days I spent in South Carolina and the days leading up to the primary, I think there are three parts to the answer: 1. South Carolina voters are practical voters, 2. Tom Steyer’s popularity with African-American voters, and 3. Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden.
Several of the South Carolinians we talked with made it clear that they were voting for the candidate that they believed to be the most electable, and that decision didn’t necessarily align with who their favorite candidate was. Unfortunately, for Bernie Sanders, these voters were basing their decision on who they believed the best person to take on Donald Trump in November would be. The practical nature of their decision, meant that they were not willing to take the risk on a candidate, which proved to be a problem for the Sanders campaign.
Tom Steyer’s popularity among African American voters in South Carolina did not translate into the strong second place that his campaign was hoping for; however, his support probably took some away from Sanders. The support that Tom Steyer received among voters in South Carolina was not enough to make up the margin between Biden and Sanders, but it is possible that had Tom Steyer had a performance similar to one of the earlier nominating contests, Bernie’s support in South Carolina would have increased.
Finally, Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden was the final nail in the coffin for the Sanders campaign in South Carolina. Biden’s support among African American voters was already pretty strong heading into the primary, and then, according to exit polling, the deciding factor among almost 50 percent of voters was Clyburn’s endorsement. Had Biden not received this endorsement, we could have seen a very different outcome in South Carolina.
The subpar performance by the Sanders campaign in South Carolina will not be detrimental campaign; however, it was just the thing that the Biden campaign was hoping for. The nominating competition is now closer than ever, and the results from Super Tuesday are going to be very telling about the future of the Sanders campaign.