The firewall held. African American voters in South Carolina on Saturday rescued Joe Biden’s fading presidential campaign. And now there’s a strongly positive answer to the question whether Biden can replicate that success in a Democratic race that has gone national.
Biden has been projected as the winner in Democratic primaries in nine states: Texas, Massachusetts (Senator Elizabeth Warren’s home state, no doubt ending her candidacy), Minnesota, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Alabama. Bernie Sanders is the victor in three states: Utah, Colorado and his small home state of Vermont.
Mike Bloomberg has been reported the winner only in tiny American Samoa, which also provided the single delegate won by Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who was born there.
Taking longer to count will be the top prize, California, where Sanders had a polling advantage.
On the day dubbed “Super Tuesday,” voters in 14 states and territories from Maine to California and beyond were choosing one third of the total delegates to the party’s national convention. Although among them only Alabama has a black population percentage comparable to South Carolina’s, African Americans make up substantial shares of voters in several others.
Low on cash and without a victory in the first three contests of the Democrats’ 2020 election calendar, all in states without substantial black populations, Biden staked everything on South Carolina.
African Americans make up nearly two-thirds of the state’s Democratic primary voters, and Biden was well situated to get their support. As vice president under Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, he had amassed a trove of good will.
More importantly, Biden had visited the state many times over his long political career and forged many warm personal relationships with influential black South Carolinians, none more important than Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the US House of Representatives.
“I know Joe Biden,” Clyburn said last week in giving Biden his endorsement. “I know his character, his heart, and his record. Joe Biden has stood for the hard-working people of South Carolina. We know Joe. But more importantly, he knows us.”
He won big, getting nearly half the votes cast among a seven candidate field and burying his closest competitor, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, by a more than 2 to 1 margin. Biden carried the African American vote, gaining 61% compared with 17% for Sanders. He also beat Sanders among white voters, 33% to 23%.
Black Americans are the national Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, and the degree to which they turn out on election day spells success or failure for the party’s candidates.
Failure to connect with black voters forced one Democratic presidential hopeful, Pete Buttigieg, out of the race on Sunday. He had tied Sanders for first place in Iowa and run a strong second in New Hampshire – both states with tiny black populations – but finished far behind in South Carolina. Exit polls showed Buttigieg with only 3% of the black vote.
Similarly, the campaigns of candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were in jeopardy going into Super Tuesday. Like Buttigieg, they had been unable to expand their support much beyond college-educated white voters.
Klobuchar yielded to the inevitable late Monday and both she and Buttigieg were set to endorse Biden.
The race going forward thus shapes up as essentially a three-way contest among Sanders, Biden and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has been leading in national polls thanks to a passionate base and the fact that moderate Democrats have been dividing their votes among Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.
His success has Democratic Party leaders deeply worried. They fear that if Sanders is the nominee, his talk of political revolution and his ideas for a huge expansion of the federal government will lead the party to disaster in the November election.
Sanders promises that he can transform the electorate, bringing out masses of young people and disaffected working class whites.
But voter turnout in the four Democratic contests so far this year has given no sign that such a phenomenon is occurring. In South Carolina, although Sanders led all candidates among voters ages 17-29, they accounted for only 11 percent of the total votes cast.
Nearly three-fourths of South Carolina voters were at least 45 years old. Biden dominated among that group, winning by more than 3 to 1 among those ages 45-64 and by more than 6 to 1 among those 65 and older.
Sanders had counted on young African American voters to help him cut into Biden’s black support. Instead, they were largely split between him and Biden, each getting 37%.
Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, chose not to run in the early primary states and has instead spent $500 million advertising in the Super Tuesday states. Much of his effort there has been to try to build black support. But if exit polls in South Carolina are a good indicator, he is headed for disappointment; 67% of voters said they had unfavorable opinions of him.
Working against Biden, however, are time and money. He has done almost no television advertising in the Super Tuesday states, and his field organization leaves much to be desired.
Polls show Sanders in position to grab the grandest prize of all: California, whose 415 delegates make up one third of the total to be awarded that day. He was also ahead in Texas, the second biggest.
But much of the South will be voting, as well, including Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. If Biden can hold on to the coalition of voters he won in South Carolina, he will win delegates in those states – and perhaps put himself in position to prevent Sanders from winning a majority before the convention.
If no candidate has the necessary 1,991 pledged delegates when the national Democratic Party convenes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July, 755 unpledged “superdelegates” – elected officials and other party leaders – will be eligible to vote on a second ballot. There is little doubt they would choose Biden over Sanders.
Henry Eichel reports for Asia Times from Lexington, South Carolina.