EDITORIAL: So, will it be Joe Biden versus Donald Trump in November after all? The conventional wisdom said Biden was having a shocker of a campaign in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for president. He was gaffe-prone and confused. He looked tired, like yesterday’s man. And then South Carolina happened.
The Biden campaign had always maintained the African-American vote in South Carolina was his “firewall”, the baseline support he could rely on, even when some claimed the firewall had cracks in it. In reality, it stayed intact.
South Carolina was the first Democratic primary in which African-American voters made up the majority. There was also a strong nostalgic element to the Biden vote: it was reported that nearly half of South Carolina voters wanted a candidate to take politics back to a time before Trump, and who can blame them?
New Zealanders who get a short sharp shock of an election campaign, and don’t witness the horse-trading that gets party leaders selected, will always be equally baffled and fascinated by the drawn-out and arcane process of picking nominees before the contest for president. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
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The win in South Carolina set Biden up for Super Tuesday, named for the votes in 14 states that offer more than a third of the delegates needed to back a candidate at the Democratic convention in July. After Biden came back dramatically in South Carolina, his resurgence – dubbed “Joementum” – continued as results came in, first in the eastern states and gradually in the west, where Sanders was expected to be stronger.
Biden’s commanding early win in Virginia has been attributed to a lack of early voting in that state. This means Virginia voters who might have wavered between other moderate Democrats backed Biden after his success in South Carolina. They were finally convinced that a candidate who looked shaky might actually be able to do it.
The Biden base is African-Americans, moderate voters and the elderly, all constituencies sometimes marginalised or taken for granted by pundits who respond to more exciting developments, such as Sanders’ mobilisation of the young and progressive. Biden is also said to be picking up another useful demographic – Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump a second time.
Biden has been weak in debates whereas those between Sanders and Trump would make for marvellous political spectacles, offering a clear and exciting contest between populist extremes on the left and right, although it must be said that Sanders’ politics would be centrist in New Zealand and other democracies not spooked by the spectre of democratic socialism.
There are deeper forces at play, as pragmatism and principle are forever at war in democracies. We vote with our hearts but also with our heads. The Democrats in 2020 have to focus more than ever on electability, which is becoming code for “anyone but Sanders”. It is difficult to imagine a Sanders White House.
Is the Sanders campaign over? It’s far too early to say. Elizabeth Warren will stay in the race a little longer. Mike Bloomberg is reassessing his campaign and would be wise to drop out and spend his millions backing another candidate.
While the failure of his campaign must be disappointing for Bloomberg, it is reassuring for democracy. Even in the United States, there is a limit to the influence of money in politics if the candidate simply isn’t likeable enough.
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