Joe Biden’s long, long political career, including two other presidential runs, his two terms as vice-president, his six terms in the Senate, and his long gone stretch as 2020 front-runner, has come down to a no-kidding, must-win primary in South Carolina this weekend. If he accomplishes that, he may have an extremely narrow path to the nomination that involves a demolition derby and then a one-one-one late primary tilt with Bernie Sanders that he must somehow win. It’s been quite a steady road down from the days when he stood astride every poll like a colossus while pundits marveled at his durability.
Tuesday night’s candidate debate in Charleston, poorly moderated and discordant as it was, represented a pretty solid win for Biden. It was one of his better performances all-around, and just as importantly, his political Angel of Death, Mike Bloomberg, had another poor outing. Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, but is lavishing unprecedented dollars on all 14 Super Tuesday primaries where he is threatening the survival of all candidates not named Bernie Sanders.
In the Palmetto State, Biden has not trailed in a single poll this cycle, but has been steadily losing ground to both Sanders and to Tom Steyer, who has made the state his do-or-die money pit. The postdebate feeling is that he did well enough to hang on for the win, particularly now that he has harvested the expected endorsement from local kingmaker and U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose opinion is definitely influential among African-American voters in his state. If Biden loses in an upset on Saturday, his campaign is almost certainly done.
If he does win, regardless of the margin, his candidacy will survive to undergo the vast and resource-draining abattoir of Super Tuesday. There his goal would be to reestablish himself as the principal moderate alternative to Sanders, which above all means running ahead of Bloomberg and perhaps even running him out of the race.
At present in the small number of Super Tuesday states with available public polling data, Biden is leading Bloomberg in California, Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, and trailing him in Virginia. But Bloomberg’s ongoing money blitz in these states, and the uncertainty surrounding early voters who may have thought after Iowa and New Hampshire that Biden’s campaign was kaput, makes any secure prediction impossible.
Even if the former veep achieves his Super Tuesday goals, he’s going to have to recharge financially a campaign that has unaccountably struggled to remain within shouting distance of the sums being raised by Sanders and even Buttigieg.
The war within the war for Biden is to maintain the advantage among minority voters that was originally the foundation of his candidacy. He’s now trailing Sanders among Latino voters, and has lost some of his lead among African-Americans to Sanders, Steyer (at least in South Carolina), and Bloomberg. And above all, Biden needs to continue to look electable against Donald Trump — at least as electable as Bernie Sanders. A factor he cannot control is the pending set of investigations that Senate Republicans are undertaking into the business dealings of his son Hunter in Ukraine, which in turn is expected to foster continued GOP claims that Joe actively helped Hunter evade prosecutors.
For the moment Biden has little choice but to put one foot in front of the other and get through Super Tuesday and the primaries just after it, hoping that Bloomberg’s off-putting background and anti-charisma and Mayor Pete’s inability to generate support from minority voters do them both in (Warren, Klobuchar, and Steyer are already struggling to survive). If he does finally get his one-on-one fight with Sanders, he can only hope that Bernie’s delegate lead isn’t already insurmountable. A FiveThirtyEight projection for Super Tuesday shows Sanders winning 587 delegates, Biden 305, Bloomberg 211, Warren 132, Buttigieg 70, and Klobuchar 38. That sort of result might enable Biden to clear the field of moderate rivals, but at some point he’s got to start decisively beating Bernie.