OVER THE past couple of weeks, centrist Democrats’ whispered anxieties about Bernie Sanders have heightened into a primal scream. In the party’s caucuses and primaries so far, he ran a close second in Iowa before winning New Hampshire and then romping to victory in Nevada, despite opposition from the state’s most powerful union. His moderate rivals, meanwhile, looked dispirited. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg did respectably in Iowa and New Hampshire, both overwhelmingly white, but struggled in Nevada, reflecting their low standing with non-white voters. Joe Biden struggled to a second-place finish in Nevada after abysmal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign tried to play down the losses and hold up South Carolina as his firewall. But in that race’s closing days, Mr Sanders improved his standing; even a close second-place finish would have padded his delegate lead.
In the end, Mr Sanders finished a distant second. Mr Biden—drawing on his long relationships in South Carolina, a crucial endorsement from the state’s most powerful Democrat, and the affection the state’s majority-African-American primary electorate holds for his long service to Barack Obama—won by nearly 30 points. It was the contest’s most lopsided result, and the first state primary Mr Biden has won in any of his three presidential runs. It has reshaped the race—but capitalising on the result for Super Tuesday, just days away on March 3rd, may prove difficult.
That is not to discount the scale of Mr Biden’s victory. He won every county, trouncing Mr Sanders not just with black and moderate voters, but also with self-identified liberals and running nearly even with him among young voters. Turnout was robust: more than 500,000 people voted, almost as many as in 2008, and 130,000 more than in 2016. In the four early states’ combined popular vote, Mr Biden now leads by nearly 65,000. In his victory speech, Mr Biden took a couple of shots at Mr Sanders, telling voters to join him “if they want a nominee who’s a Democrat” (Mr Sanders won all of his elections as an Independent), and knocking him for his pro-gun voting record.
Saturday’s biggest losers were the other two moderates, Mr Buttigieg and Ms Klobuchar. Before South Carolina, their chances of winning the nomination looked slim; they are now non-existent. Both will face pressure to drop out as quickly as possible. Leaving before Super Tuesday would allow them to help Mr Biden’s candidacy by endorsing him (though Ms Klobuchar’s remaining in the race may block Mr Sanders from winning Minnesota, which has the sort of electorate—liberal, white—that tends to favour him). Mr Buttigieg’s political future would look brighter in a Biden administration than a Sanders one.
Unless Mike Bloomberg turns in a stellar performance on Super Tuesday, the rationale for his candidacy will also fade. Mr Biden and Mr Bloomberg are both competing for the votes of pragmatic moderates, and Mr Bloomberg’s rise in the polls has taken a chunk out of Mr Biden. A rejuvenated Mr Biden could reverse that slide. If Mr Bloomberg does drop out, he has promised to spend heavily on behalf of any Democratic nominee; Mr Sanders has declined the offer. Mr Biden, who has struggled with fundraising, would no doubt happily accept.
A Biden-Sanders race would pit two theories of coalition-building against each other. Mr Sanders has turned “unprecedented grassroots campaign” into a Homeric epithet: he promises to ride a wave of young and new voters’ support to victory, making up for the moderates and disaffected Republicans who would prefer to stay at home or vote for Mr Trump rather than elect a socialist. Certainly, he has built an impressive fundraising machine: the morning after South Carolina, his campaign announced it had raised $46m from 2.2m donations in February alone. That will buy him a lot of airtime in Super Tuesday states. He holds sizeable leads in California and Texas, the two biggest Super Tuesday prizes. Mr Sanders has courted the least reliable voters (young people), and hopes to hector the rest of the electorate into falling in line.
Mr Biden, by contrast, does best with older, African-American and moderate voters. His candidacy seems to generate more affection than wild enthusiasm; he promises competence and restoration rather than revolution. He has cultivated the most reliable voters (older ones) and African-Americans, a core Democratic voting bloc, and hopes to bring everyone else along. Both Mr Sanders and Mr Biden poll well with white voters who finished education at 18, a group that will be important come November.
South Carolina may prove a one-off victory for Mr Biden. To win more states, he will have to consolidate the anti-Sanders vote. Even if he does, Democrats still have a long slog ahead, possibly leading to a contested convention.