Joe Biden captured 61 percent of the African-American vote in South Carolina on Saturday, allowing him to beat Bernie Sanders easily statewide. Biden now has a chance to do well on Super Tuesday and could soon consolidate the anti-Sanders vote. But make no mistake, Bernie Sanders remains the clear front-runner.
The latest forecast by the political forecaster FiveThirtyEight finds that there’s now a 59 percent chance of a contested Democratic convention. Bernie Sanders has a 28 percent chance to win the majority of delegates on the first ballot, while Joe Biden has a 13 percent chance. No one else still running has anything above a 1 percent chance.
The reason Sanders still has the inside track is that Biden has yet to score a convincing win in a state where he doesn’t have the overwhelming advantage. South Carolina is Biden’s neighborhood, home to African-American voters who were fond of his loyal service as Barack Obama’s vice president and to older moderate whites. It’s also the home base of House majority whip Jim Clyburn, who threw his political machine behind Biden in the crucial days right before the primary. Indeed, Biden was so strong in South Carolina that, as of now, it is the only state primary he has won in any of the presidential races he’s run since 1988.
The 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday will answer the question about whether Biden can create the kind of coalition that Hillary Clinton assembled to hold back Sanders’s insurgent candidacy in 2016. So far, Biden has had little success attracting Hispanics, feminists, or highly educated white voters.
He also hasn’t convinced party leaders or campaign strategists that he can go the distance all the way to beating President Trump in November. In just the past week, Biden committed several rhetorical flubs that call into question his ability to avoid obvious mistakes in an even more heated fall campaign.
At the statewide dinner hosted by the South Carolina Democratic Party last Monday, Biden bizarrely introduced himself as follows: “My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democratic candidate for the United State Senate. Look me over. If you like what you see, help out. If not, vote for the other Biden. Give me a look though, okay?”
Biden followed that head scratcher a couple of days later by telling a crowd he was “looking forward to appointing the first African-American woman to the United States Senate.” The problem is that there have been two black women already elected to the Senate, and it is governors, not presidents, who can appoint a senator if there is a vacancy. Then, during the Democratic debate three days before the primary, he said, speaking of gun deaths, “150 million people have been killed since 2007.” He was off by about 149.9 million.
Every politician makes gaffes, and at the presidential level, many battle exhaustion. But party insiders with whom I spoke say that Biden’s constant flubs are part of a pattern that is worrisome if he is to be the Democratic nominee. “Trump says bizarre things all the time, but you get the sense it’s on purpose,” one Democratic pollster told me. “With Biden, it’s a constant series of train wrecks and low-energy debate performances. If he debates Trump, I fear he would lose, even though Trump is famously undisciplined.”
But despite all the complaints about Biden from establishment Democrats, they will pull out all the stops to nominate him and block Sanders.
The radical Vermont senator would be viewed as a millstone around the neck of every moderate Democrat running in a swing state or district this fall. With Sanders at the top of the ticket, the party could fail to take back the Senate. Even more alarming to Democrats, it could lose the House and a slew of state legislatures in key states that, next year, will begin the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing most of the nation’s political maps.
Democrats are paying a high price for their successful kneecapping of Sanders when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016. They stopped him from getting the nomination, but Hillary’s surprising loss allowed Sanders to create the myth that he would have won because his left-wing populism would have proved more popular than Trump’s right-wing brand of populism.
Now Sanders is back, with an even higher name ID than he had in 2016, an army of loyal small-dollar donors, and the enthusiastic support of the increasingly vocal radical wing of the Democratic Party. For now, he is the front-runner for the nomination. But what party leaders fear is that he is also a doomed underdog if he is their candidate in the fall.