Robert David SullivanMarch 02, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally on Sunday, March 1, in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally on Sunday, March 1, in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Update: The New York Times is now reporting that Amy Klobuchar will drop out of the presidential race and endorse Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, only hours after Pete Buttigieg dropped out. If Bernie Sanders falters, a turning point may have been his campaign's insistence that he would claim the nomination even with a mere plurality of delegates. Openly stating a strategy of divide-and-conquer rather than unification was pretty much daring the Democratic Party establishment to act against him.

It is always a danger to call an election “the most important ever,” but this year’s Super Tuesday presidential primaries will cause unprecedented angst no matter how they turn out. Will the possibility of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic presidential nomination continue to freak out everyone over the age of 40? Will Mr. Sanders lose his chance to win a majority of convention delegates, causing his supporters to freak out about the possibility his nomination will be “stolen”?

Mr. Sanders’s momentum from winning the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 came to a halt on Saturday in South Carolina, when Joe Biden won with 48 percent of the vote to Mr. Sanders’s 20 percent—thanks largely to his 4-to-1 lead among black voters, according to exit polling. It is far from certain that Mr. Biden will do as well among more urban black Democrats in upcoming primaries (including those in the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), but for now Mr. Sanders faces renewed questions about whether he can improve his 2016 performance among the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters.

It would be ironic if South Carolina, a state that President Trump won by 14 points and is not considered attainable for the Democrats this year, were to change the trajectory of the Democratic primaries. But it has put Mr. Biden a lot closer to becoming the consensus anti-Sanders candidate, especially with the helpful withdrawal of Pete Buttigieg on Sunday. This would essentially reset the clock to a year ago, before all of the debates and polls and Twitter wars over some two dozen Democrats seriously running for president.

It would be ironic if South Carolina, a state that President Trump won by 14 points and is not considered attainable for the Democrats this year, were to change the trajectory of the Democratic primaries.

But on Super Tuesday Mr. Biden still has to contend with a persistent Elizabeth Warren, who could be a compromise between the democratic socialist and center-left wings of the party, and Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the most-seen individual on television these days because of his spending on campaign commercials.

The scramble for an Anybody-but-Sanders candidate got more frenzied not only after Mr. Sanders won the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 but after his supporters took to social media to make threats like this one, from the political writer David Klion: “If Bernie has a plurality of delegates and votes and superdelegates deny him the nomination, I’m staying home, and I’m sure a lot of other people will too. Party leaders should be aware of this now so they can factor it into their decision.” The sensible course of action, most party leaders may conclude, is to work like hell to make sure that Mr. Sanders does not get a plurality of delegates.

Even a muddled picture out of Super Tuesday could be cleared up if Mr. Biden, a resurgent Mr. Sanders or someone else finally gets decisive wins in later primaries.

Even a muddled picture out of Super Tuesday could be cleared up if Mr. Biden, a resurgent Mr. Sanders or someone else finally gets decisive wins in later primaries. But there is still a chance Super Tuesday will set off five months of speculation about a contested convention—speculation that would probably lead to the candidates and party leaders reaching some kind of a deal before the convention, inevitably enraging a lot of party members. “It’s hard to imagine pro-socialist leftists and pro-capitalist liberals remaining peacefully in the same political party,” writes Michael Tomasky in an extremely pessimistic overview of the Democratic primaries in The New York Review of Books. Let’s see if they can remain peacefully in the same convention all.

Here are some other takeaways from the South Carolina results and the coverage of Super Tuesday.

1. Political junkies do not determine the outcome of elections. Highly educated, highly informed Democratic voters helped to create boomlets for various policy wonks—Kamala Harris, Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—over the past year. Now the frontrunners are the same as when the process started, the two old guys with the highest name recognition. Are brainy voters too fickle for their own good?

2. Mr. Sanders has broken the way the media covers presidential primaries. Supporters of Mr. Sanders have long accused the media of bias against the Vermont senator. Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, agreed last week, writing, “Despite Sanders’ electoral wins—including a gargantuan victory in Nevada—the political press, the establishment press, is determined to dismiss his standing as the front-runner. It is embarrassing itself in the process. Once again, the echo chamber of the political reporting class is forcing it to miss a story as it materializes around them.”

It is true that Mr. Sanders did not get the kind of political superstar treatment that early front-runners have received in past years, but that may be a good thing. For decades, the media has gone along with the idea that only two or three candidates have “momentum” after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary (no one has become a major-party nominee without finishing at least second in Iowa or New Hampshire since 1968), even though the two states are far from representative of the nation as a whole. While this year’s debacle in counting the votes in Iowa surely had something to do with tarnishing the state’s legitimacy, downplaying what George H.W. Bush once infamously called “the big mo” of an early win makes for smarter political coverage.

3. This spring’s debates have been as poorly run as the Iowa caucuses. The political scientist Hans Noel had an appropriate reaction to last week’s acrimonious Democratic debate, tweeting:Americans: Let’s select nominees through a ridiculous system that turns a single primary into a crazy high-stakes event. Also Americans: I can’t believe those candidates acted all desperate in that debate last night as if the primary right after it was a crazy high-stakes event!”

The New York Times editorialized that the debate in South Carolina “descended into an unintelligible screaming match among too many candidates whose differences belie a vast common ground” and that the “dumb” presidential primaries should be replaced with ranked-choice voting. (Of course, the Times could be in a snit because it was widely mocked for endorsing two Democratic candidates for president, Amy Klobuchar and Ms. Warren—neither of whom could campaign as the choice of The New York Times and neither of whom has won an early contest.)

The New York Times said the debate “descended into an unintelligible screaming match among too many candidates whose differences belie a vast common ground.”

The political journalist Jonathan Bernstein complained, “there were hardly any policy questions in the first hour at all, with the moderators instead inviting candidates to pick fights with one another and pushing them on recent campaign controversies.”

Debate moderators also try to goad candidates into making premature or irresponsible promises (such as moving the United States embassy in Israel out of Jerusalem, or vowing never to raise taxes), and many of the questions are based on the center-right economic assumptions that federal budgets must be balanced and government must be downsized. The question “How are you going to pay for your proposals?” ignores the fact that the funding for all new programs must be negotiated with Congress, and it cuts off the real value of a debate, which is allowing candidates to indicate their values and priorities. (I disagree with many analysts who think that questions like “What is your personal motto?” is a lot more informative than “Where do you get that last $14 trillion?”)

Unlike the Iowa caucuses, debates aren’t going to disappear, but they might be better if the Democratic National Committee bypassed CNN and the like, setting them up more like Town Hall forums and putting them on YouTube.

4. The South has brought spirituality into the presidential race. In addition to being the first state with a mostly black Democratic electorate, South Carolina is by far the most religious of the first four states to vote for president, so it was not surprising that it behaved somewhat differently, giving Mr. Biden his first win. The candidates were more likely to make campaign stops in churches here (especially Mr. Biden, counting on the votes of older and more moderate African Americans). And at last week’s debate in Charleston, both Mr. Buttigeig and Ms. Warren cited Scripture in responding to the last question of the evening.

According to exit polls cited in The Washington Post, 46 percent of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 13 percent in New Hampshire. Within this group, Mr. Biden won 56 percent of the vote to Mr. Sanders’s 15 percent. Since most states are much less religious than South Carolina, this does not mean Mr. Biden has an easy road ahead. But it does mean that Mr. Sanders will have to depend on big wins in the more secular states of the Northeast and West (i.e., the states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016)

5. Pete Buttigieg knows about timing. By pulling out of the race less than 48 hours before Super Tuesday, Mr. Buttigieg probably helps Mr. Biden, Mr. Bloomberg, Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar to hit 15 percent and thus earn delegates in more congressional districts—thus reducing the possibility that Mr. Sanders will take all or almost all of the delegates in districts where his opposition is split five ways. This means that if the eventual nominee is not Mr. Sanders, he or she will owe a debt to Mr. Buttigieg for helping to block the Vermont senator.

Did Mr. Biden cut a deal with Mr. Buttigieg, offering him a cabinet post or another job? Maybe, but that is the kind of deal-making that gets legislation through Congress, so this rumor only helps Mr. Biden in later primaries.

6. Money doesn’t motivate voters. The businessman Tom Steyer also dropped out of the race after South Carolina, a state in which he spent more than $17 million on television commercials and got only 11 percent of the vote. This may be an ominous sign for Mr. Bloomberg, who has already spent $410 million on TV ads across the country (which, if nothing else, have a lot of potential voters wrongly believing that Mr. Bloomberg has been endorsed by Barack Obama).

The problem for Mr. Steyer and Mr. Bloomberg is that voting in an election is not like buying toilet paper or choosing a phone company. It’s not something most people feel they have to do. Mr. Steyer and Mr. Bloomberg would have been better off bankrolling a campaign to pass a mandatory voting law. If every American were required to vote (or face a hefty fine, if not jail time), there would be a lot more votes for the last face seen on TV.

7. We’re tired. Last Thursday, the Politico writer Marc Caputo tweeted a video from a campaign stop by Mr. Biden in South Carolina, in which a voter asked him, “What is your fire?” Mr. Biden answered, “Decency and honor. The fact that I’m not screaming like Bernie and waving my arms like Elizabeth is not a lack of fire.”

Mr. Biden’s main appeal has always been that he would bring the White House back to the “no drama Obama” days, when politics was not as dramatic (or Shakespearean?) as it is under President Trump. His best hope on Super Tuesday is that voters want an early cancellation not only of the Trump administration but of Democratic fighting as well.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned a tweet by the actor Bill Murray in support of Elizabeth Warren, but it is not clear that this was actually his tweet account, and it switched to Joe Biden today, anyway. Ms. Warren still seems to have the support of John Legend, Rosie O'Donnell and Martin Sheen, according to Dateline, which lists celebrity endorsements here.

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