CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina doesn’t get the attention its northern neighbors do. Fourth in the primary states, it lacks the excitement of the opening guns of Iowa and New Hampshire (although Fort Sumter is just across the bay). But pay attention, because the results of its Saturday election will play a deciding role in the future of the Democratic Party.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is strongest down here. We knew that even before his national position became precarious. Name-recognition, moderate Democrats, and popularity with black voters combine to place him an average of 12 points ahead of the next guy as of Friday morning. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the current leader, takes second — and he, along with Biden, has the most to win or lose this weekend.
Sanders’ base is like none other in his party — politically radical, committed to their man without question, and motivated to do whatever it takes to beat the Democratic establishment. The Democratic establishment’s base is, mildly speaking, less so, with the Not-Bernie vote split and fickle. South Carolina is where all of this takes shape into A) A strong Biden who is able to coral the Not-Bernie majority into a real win, B) A wounded Biden able to fight to the convention, or C) Bernie for President 2020.
Slowed by age, hit by impossible-to-explain scandal, and encumbered by a voter energy that’s moved beyond his old boss, Joe has fallen far behind expectations. A small-town mayor with an Obama complex, a neoconservative billionaire and… Amy Klobuchar… have risen in the vacuum, each with problems that panic the party and its major donors. A 10-plus-points win will change that going into the Super Tuesday states where voters don’t have the luxury of weeks of intensive meet-and-greets and instead make decisions based on the news, debates, the very-real sparkle of a winner, and the stink that follows a loser.
A big Biden win three days before Tuesday’s votes won’t hand him any crown but it will do a good deal to disperse the musk clinging to his campaign, especially in Southern states more disposed toward him, including Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. Nate Silver, the pollster who gave Donald Trump an actual chance of winning in 2016 (29 percent), predicts a big win in South Carolina will eek Biden over the threshold in all of these states, placing him within swiping distance of Sanders and eliminating or severely knee-capping the others.
A big win Saturday is not guaranteed, though: The Palmetto State has not been polled nearly as thoroughly as New Hampshire or Iowa were and the few recent polls vary widely. Some might say a win is a win, but South Carolina has long been touted as Biden’s fortress — so much so that he cancelled his New Hampshire watch party and flew here instead. While signalling he is still alive, a five-point win won’t do enough to prove the haters wrong– and could keep the closely contested Southern states with Sanders. In this case, Silver’s models predict:
…Sanders would remain the favorite — although a narrow favorite — in Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, instead of having become an underdog in those states. Furthermore, the combined moderate lane delegate counts would [no] longer exceed the progressive lane counts (Sanders and Warren together would have 52 percent of delegates to the moderates’ 47 percent), depriving Biden of that talking point. …
This case also might be the perfect result for Republicans: While playing with Sanders is a dangerous game at the national level, this result keeps Michael Bloomberg and maybe others in the fray. The GOP is deeply wary of Bloomberg’s Wallet but they also don’t want him to grow discouraged and take his ball home too early. A long and bloody civil war is a win for them.
And then there’s potential the crack of the Democratic Party. “Only nine of the 93 superdelegates interviewed said that Mr. Sanders should become the nominee purely on the basis of arriving at the convention with a plurality,” The New York Times reported Thursday. The article, titled “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders,” is a stark display of how ready the party is to wrench the nomination from the old socialist and his loyal followers. This, these Democrats must know, would mean four more years for President Trump but spare them the party’s ruin and down-ticket slaughter they foresee under Bernie’s banner.
Biden’s main concern in this case will be running out of money, with fundraising so low his campaign is bragging about hauls dwarfed by Sanders and Warren alike. John McCain ran out of money in 2007 but cut a number of staff and was able to limp on to win the nomination. True, McCain ran out early and rebooted to win, but Biden doesn’t even need to win. To finish the year with his head held high, all he really needs to do is get to the war on the floor of the Democratic National Convention, where he can play anti-Sanders kingmaker. (This would, of course, leave him the eternal villain of the hard left.)
Then, there’s the third option. If Sanders wins, he sweeps Super Tuesday and is well on his way to the nomination. No matter the path South Carolina chooses Saturday, pay close attention: This is where the Democratic Party’s future will be decided.