Joe Biden’s resounding victory in South Carolina could help reshape the race — or might just be a bump in Bernie Sanders’s road. I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about what the Sanders campaign is thinking, who might drop out before Tuesday, and more.
Ben: You’re in Virginia, traveling with the Sanders campaign. Joe Biden was expected to win South Carolina, but the margin of his victory is larger than most foresaw — and he’s crushing everyone among black voters. This points to a more competitive Super Tuesday than it looked like we might get in the aftermath of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. What’s the mood like over there?
Gabriel: Sanders himself doesn’t seem too bothered by it, perhaps because he remembers getting crushed in South Carolina in 2016. But it is true that he and his team were hoping to do better there, and that they’re happy to be in the Super Tuesday states. (He was in Massachusetts this morning, and he’s in Virginia tonight. California’s tomorrow, and Monday will see him in Utah and Minnesota.) They still feel good, but clearly Biden is feeling strength that he didn’t have just a few hours ago. The question now is whether that translates to Tuesday, or if it’s too soon.
These two, it seems, have reason to feel like this could last a while. If you ask me, the biggest pressure is on literally everyone else right now, including Michael Bloomberg.
Ben: Indeed. Shortly after Biden’s win was apparent, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said on MSNBC what many are thinking: That it’s a two-person race between Biden and Sanders, with the implication that other contenders should drop out posthaste. Tom Steyer announced that he was calling it quits Saturday night; Bloomberg, with his massive Super Tuesday spending, is unlikely to do so in the next three days. Do you think anyone else will?
Gabriel: Really hard to say — Warren and Buttigieg have both recently been telegraphing pretty strongly how they plan to navigate Super Tuesday and what they’re aiming for. (Some specific states for Warren; Buttigieg is trying to keep Sanders’s margin down.) The hardest thing for them might be defining what the path forward looks like, realistically, considering their likely lack of campaign cash.
Ben: Even before Biden underperformed in Iowa and New Hampshire, he had way less cash on hand than Sanders and others. With this huge win and the dawning reality that he’s probably the moderates’ best hope to win, will the cash start pouring in?
Gabriel: That’s clearly the hope! But that won’t matter if he can’t pull off a big performance on Tuesday. At this point, what he’s looking for is a narrative that convinces voters he’s still a viable option. If enough Buttigieg- or Klobuchar-leaning voters in California decide Biden is their best bet on Tuesday, for example, we could be looking at a reshaped race. Then the money could flow, no matter what. But it’s not like if he raises $2 million tonight that alone is going to change the calculus all that much in the Super Tuesday states.
It is obviously true, by the way, that Biden is currently positioned to be the moderates’ best hope, and this time it feels far more obvious than it has for others previously. But I would be remiss if I didn’t note that after Iowa it was obviously Buttigieg, after New Hampshire it was obviously Pete, but then again maybe Klobuchar. Then it was Bloomberg, duh. Then it was maybe Biden? Now it’s definitely Biden. Point is, things are moving.
Ben: Anything else on your mind as South Carolina fades in the rearview mirror?
Gabriel: One question some in the party will likely be seriously considering after the early states is the degree to which they should exist where they do in the process, at all. That’s clearly been true for Iowa, but the truth is that the race is still pretty muddled after the first four, and it’s not abundantly clear that these four can make a case that they should, together, continue to play this role. (Each will likely be able to make an individual case, but not as a group.) Can you think of any argument to keep this system, now that we’re likely going to enter Super Tuesday with five or six or seven candidates still in it?
Ben: I can’t think of one. Can you?
Gabriel: (Man-shrugging emoji.)