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4 winners and 3 losers in the South Carolina Democratic primary

A good night for Biden, a bad one for Bloomberg.

Joe Biden campaigning in Sumter, South Carolina, on February 28, 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

South Carolina is the end of the beginning — and its primary results were a blowout that transformed the narrative of the Democratic race, hinting at a possible two-person contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

First came the traditional two — Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s “first-in-the-nation” primary. Then came Nevada, moved close to the front of the calendar to give Latino voters more voice in the process, and now, South Carolina, which serves a similar role but for the African American electorate. None of these states are particularly large or rich in delegates (though South Carolina is the biggest of the four) but they matter because each one stands alone on its own day — a beautiful unique snowflake that drives storylines and builds momentum.

Collectively, the opening four don’t determine the winner of a nominating contest, but they do shape the race to come.

But before we head on to Super Tuesday, here’s who won and who lost.

Winner: Joe Biden

Biden won by winning, a pleasingly straightforward and old-fashioned way of winning. His campaign was on the verge of being left for dead after fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, but started a comeback with a second-place finish in Nevada and now delivered in the demographically friendly state of South Carolina.

Supporters cheer for Joe Biden in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on February 28, 2020.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The former vice president is still in much worse shape than he was at the beginning of February, when he enjoyed a large national polling lead and was only very slightly behind Bernie Sanders in Iowa. At that time it still seemed plausible that Biden might edge out a win in the caucuses and then just roll to a dominant victory. Those days are gone and despite the South Carolina win, Biden is still playing catch-up to Sanders in national polls and will likely fall behind in delegates on Super Tuesday.

But he’s stopped the bleeding, his national poll numbers seem to be on the upswing, he retains a deep reservoir of support with black Democrats, and he can make an excellent case that he is far and away the most viable alternative to Sanders. Joe’s back.

Loser: Mike Bloomberg

When Mike Bloomberg started talking about a late entry into the race in early November, I said he was only going to split the moderate vote and help elect Elizabeth Warren.

Since that time, Sanders has clearly displaced Warren as the leading progressive champion, but the basic analysis still applies. Right now, Sanders enjoys a roughly 12-point lead over Biden in national polls, but ranked-choice polling shows he’d have a much narrower lead in a two-person race. Bloomberg’s presence in the race, in other words, is meaningfully increasing the odds of the outcome he says he doesn’t want. Dropping out and giving a modest amount of money to a pro-Biden super PAC would be a reasonably effective “Stop Bernie” move, while spending lavishly on his own campaign is helping Bernie.

Mike Bloomberg campaigns in Wilmington, North Carolina, on February 29, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But there was a brief period after Biden’s Iowa swoon when this analysis didn’t seem to apply. Amid panic about his viability as a candidate, a decent crop of swing-district House members and big-city mayors (many of whom had benefited in one way or another from Bloomberg’s largess) endorsed the former New York mayor. He also received enough free media coverage to largely stomp on coverage of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Iowa bounce.

The reality that Biden is still here — and still the obvious choice for Democrats who want continuity with the Obama era rather than a political revolution — deals a fatal blow to the logic of the Bloomberg boomlet. Blessed as he is with a $60 billion fortune, Bloomberg can easily blow $100 million a month on a presidential campaign without breaking a sweat, so nobody can force him out of the race. But he presumably wants to actually be president, not just run for president, and it’s increasingly hard to see how that happens.

Loser: Tom Steyer

He’s rich, but not nearly as rich as Bloomberg. He spent big on the 2020 primary, but not Bloomberg big. And unlike the other billionaire in the race, he has no record in office or qualifications to be president.

Nonetheless, Steyer decided to run with his spending concentrated in the early states — South Carolina particularly.

Tom Steyer campaigns in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on February 26, 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

South Carolina was the only one of those early four where there was any evidence of him getting traction, but all it earned him was a distant third-place finish. Steyer dropped out of the race shortly after the results were announced.

The good news is that, unlike Bloomberg, Steyer never really attracted any opposition research or criticism from his rivals. Steyer’s pre-campaign political giving was extremely well-regarded and broadly appreciated in progressive circles, and it seems like he can go back to being a well-liked benefactor with no real harm done or hard feelings. Still, it’s difficult to understand exactly what was the plan here.

Winner: James Clyburn

After the failure of the “party decides” thesis in the 2016 cycle, there’s been considerable skepticism about whether old-fashioned things like endorsements from local elected officials still matter.

The endorsement of Biden by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), one of the top figures in the House Democratic caucus, absolutely counted as a big deal by those traditional standards. But did traditional standards count anymore? In South Carolina, at least, it seems they did — with 47 percent of voters telling exit pollsters his endorsement was a factor in their decision.

That’s a win for old-school politics. But because old-school politics seems to be on the way out, it’s also a considerable personal win for Clyburn, who has proven himself to be the rare modern-day elected official who voters care about. The mere fact that people say Clyburn swung their vote doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, of course, but the fact that they want to say it is a sign of the esteem for him locally.

Winner: The news cycle

I didn’t love needing to work on the weekend, but having an open primary on a Saturday gave plenty of people the opportunity to vote. And once they voted, the votes were counted quickly and without a lot of drama.

“State holds election, and it’s fine” is not exactly the biggest news in the world, but after the fiasco in Iowa and with the future of caucuses as a whole in question, it’s a nice reminder that there are simple, straightforward ways to hold an election.

And it’s a lucky thing, too, because this was a Saturday absolutely jam-packed with news. In the morning, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban that should remove US forces from Afghanistan and very likely set the stage for an eventual Taliban victory in their ongoing war with the Afghan government. Concurrently, the United States had the first Covid-19 death on American soil, and Trump held an afternoon coronavirus press conference in which he began to back off his earlier efforts to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic.

South Carolina is a big story, but it’s not clear how long we’ll be talking about this with so much else going on.

Winner: The contested convention

It would be over the top to call Sanders a “loser” in this outcome — he’s still the frontrunner in delegates and national polls, the most likely nominee, and generally in good shape.

Having a big loss to Biden wasn’t Sanders’s first choice of outcomes, but everyone knows this is not the demographically friendliest state for him. Still, despite years of hard work and organizing aimed at bolstering his standing in Southern states with large populations of black voters, he still came up far short.

Consequently, while Sanders remains in the lead, the odds of him scoring a clean victory over Biden have diminished. That means a scenario in which nobody secures a majority of pledged delegates before the convention is looking more likely.

Loser: Assuming normal voters think like professional activists

Clinton won the 2016 nomination due in large part to scoring huge margins with African American voters in places like South Carolina.

Once it became clear how central black voters were to her support, she started talking about politics in a particular way — talking about intersectionality, asking “if we broke up the big banks tomorrow ... would that end racism?”, and invoking the phrase “systematic racism.” These are ideas familiar to younger college graduates, often developed by black intellectuals and popular in racial justice activism circles. And since Clinton did, in fact, obtain overwhelming majorities among African American voters, many 2020 contenders essentially tried to imitate this approach.

Suzanna Danuta Walters in the Nation hailed Warren for running “an unapologetically intersectional campaign,” which she certainly did. So did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former US housing secretary Julian Castro, both of whom ended up dropping out early, with Castro endorsing Warren and becoming a frequently used campaign surrogate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in North Charleston, South Carolina, on February 26, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In South Carolina, this approach delivered meager results with the electorate. Both in the Palmetto State and in national polls, black voters seem split between Biden’s back-to-basics kitchen table economics pitch and Sanders’s democratic socialist pitch, with the divisions mostly falling along age lines.

The two candidates’ pitches on economic issues are very different, but Biden and Sanders are similar in having some of the weakest claims to wokeness and least explicitly intersectional rhetoric in the field.

It’s not that racial issues aren’t important or that the candidates doing well in South Carolina don’t have strong policies on them. But most voters are working class, not necessarily super-familiar with particular social justice issues, and not as siloed in their concerns as activists.

There’s a strong market in South Carolina for “similar to Obama” and a smaller but also strong market for Sanders’s youth-fueled revolution, with few voters looking to attend a critical race theory seminar.

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