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Did Biden’s South Carolina win come just in time for Super Tuesday — or too late?

It could give him the momentum he needs. But he faces some obstacles.

Supporters cheer at a primary election night rally for Joe Biden in Columbia, South Carolina on February 29, 2020.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

South Carolina Democratic voters have finally delivered former frontrunner Joe Biden a win.

The question is whether that win came just in time for Biden’s hopes on Super Tuesday, which is just three days away — or whether it came too late.

The former vice president had led national polls of the Democratic contest throughout 2019 and into January 2020. But after Biden’s poor showings in Iowa (fourth place) and New Hampshire (fifth place), he saw that lead vanish.

Several problems arose for Biden. Most notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders surged to first in national polls after essentially tying for first in Iowa and winning outright victories in New Hampshire and Nevada. But nearly as threateningly, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg surged into third, apparently cutting into Biden’s support, since more voters were beginning to doubt whether Biden could win. And the field barely winnowed, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar all staying in. (Billionaire activist Tom Steyer dropped out.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters cheer during a rally in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 28, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Those first three states had a paltry number of delegates at stake. But Super Tuesday and its 1,344 delegates — one-third of the total — were right around the corner, on March 3, about to be allotted just as Biden had seriously weakened nationally. Biden’s decline and the crowded field posed the risk that Sanders could jump out to a near-insurmountable delegate lead.

Biden’s South Carolina win could be just what he needs to regain at least some of his lost ground so he can perform well on Super Tuesday. Theoretically, this victory will earn him lots of positive horse-race-focused media coverage, establish him as the clear remaining alternative to Sanders, and loom large with Super Tuesday late deciders. (Nearly half of the delegates at stake in that day’s contests are from Southern states.)

Or it could not.

Biden’s Super Tuesday problems

There are a few complications for Biden’s hopes of a speedy comeback.

First is early voting. Millions of Super Tuesday voters in states like California, Texas, and North Carolina cast their ballots before South Carolina did. So a large share of the vote on Super Tuesday is already locked in and obviously can’t be influenced by Biden’s Palmetto State win.

Team Biden’s hope is that voters who were on the fence and open to supporting the former vice president were more likely to wait to cast their ballots, rather than voting early for, say, Mike Bloomberg. But it’s possible that whatever momentum Biden gains from South Carolina could be blunted somewhat by early voting.

Second is the news cycle. Biden surely wants his win to become the major story dominating airtime and headlines over the next three days. But the coronavirus outbreak has been the biggest national story in recent days. President Donald Trump also tends to generate a fair amount of news — take his speech at an annual conservative conference Saturday, just as one example. Biden’s big win might break through to enough voters who haven’t been paying attention (or who have been seeing tons of Bloomberg ads), but it’s not a sure thing.

Finally, Biden’s campaign is cash-strapped and has barely been able to fund ads beyond South Carolina. From a financial perspective, it would have been better for Biden to have his big comeback victory earlier, so more money would pour into his coffers that he could spend on Super Tuesday. Team Biden’s likely hope is that the positive national news coverage he’ll get from his win will end up being more valuable than their own ads would have been. But it’s not exactly an ideal situation for him.

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