The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 9

This week:

  • Biden gets the win he needed
  • Is Joe back in it?
  • Why now? Buttigieg abruptly drops out

On the cusp of Super Tuesday, we focus right where we have to, on the four B’s: Bernie, Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg.

Biden’s Big Day: We noted last week that Joe Biden, having suffered embarrassing losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, was even in some danger of losing his firewall state of South Carolina. 

We also noted that he needed a decisive win to remain relevant in the 2020 Democratic primary — and that even that victory wouldn’t be sufficient in and of itself. 

Well, Biden righted the ship in South Carolina, coming away with 48 percent of the vote — a sweeping, blowout win. Bernie Sanders finished in a distant second place at 20 percent, and no one else reached 15 percent. This means that only Biden (35 delegates) and Sanders (13 delegates) walked away from South Carolina with any delegates. This part of the result is even better for Biden, who might have gotten significantly fewer delegates had a third or even a fourth Democratic candidate reached the 15 percent viability threshold.

Does this mean Biden is back? Can he reclaim his status as frontrunner once again? 

Well, probably not. A few thoughts on this topic.

First, this was actually a small improvement for Sanders. In 2016, running head-to-head against Hillary Clinton, he had received only 14 percent of the black vote — an appalling performance. This time, in a field of some half a dozen candidates, he got 17 percent of black votes. 

Second, South Carolina is not representative of the country, nor are its Democrats representative of the nation’s Democrats. Biden simply cannot count on such levels of black support outside the state. Both black and white voters in the Palmetto State, who both favored Biden, may not prove to be much like the black or white voters in other states, such as Michigan. Consider that in 2016, Bernie Sanders won only 14 percent of black voters in South Carolina against Hillary Clinton, but a much more respectable 28 percent in Michigan, 30 percent in Illinois, and 32 percent in Missouri.

Third, the polls show Biden doomed in most states to come in second to Sanders. This South Carolina win may not provide him any sort of momentum boost, especially in places where early voting is prevalent. Biden polls behind Sanders in Texas and everywhere outside the South. If Sanders achieves the delegate blowout currently expected in California, Biden will find himself in the position, in the end, of having to ask convention delegates to select him despite his having fewer delegates than Sanders. This is the public relations nightmare that Democrats are desperate to avoid. 

The Democratic establishment was originally counting on Biden to win — to be a clear frontrunner. They are reduced now — given the apparent implosion of Michael Bloomberg — to hoping and praying that he has a successful enough Super Tuesday that he can enter convention with a large enough minority of delegates that he can plausibly be chosen as the nominee in spite of performing poorly in the primaries.

Bernie Sanders: Biden’s performance in South Carolina points the way to how the Democrats’ 15 percent threshold determines Sanders’s future. He got less than half the vote, but far more than half the delegates, because only Sanders beat the 15 percent threshold.

The same will be true of Sanders on Super Tuesday, as he is expected to finish first in most places. The efficacy of Sanders’s victories will be determined by how many other Democratic rivals reach the 15 percent threshold. This makes especially relevant the fact that Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg have dropped out. Yes, Steyer especially wasn’t drawing a significant portion of the vote. But when the entire point is to prevent rivals from getting 15 percent, that small amount he draws could be significant. 

Pete Buttigieg: The announcement late Sunday that Buttigieg was dropping out of the presidential race really made very little sense. After all, the former South Bend mayor had been expected to fare poorly in the South Carolina primary anyway. He hadn’t dropped out when this expectation came to fruition. 

There is at least weak evidence that Buttigieg had no plans to drop out as of Saturday night or even Sunday morning. His Twitter message to Tom Steyer, congratulating the billionaire as he dropped out Saturday night, did not evince someone who was himself planning to drop out less than 24 hours later. Less than eight hours before he dropped out, Buttigieg was unmistakably tweeting like someone who planned to stay in for Super Tuesday, which means that at least his social media team was unaware until the last second. 

Having performed strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mayor Pete’s best opportunities to amass delegates seemed to be ahead of him. In California and other Super Tuesday states, he had a good chance of breaking the 15 percent threshold where many other candidates would probably fail to do so.
In any event, if Butigieg was induced to drop out by someone’s promises, it’s not clear who will actually benefit from his early exit. One might expect Biden to do better as a consequence, but polling suggests that, on the margin, more of Buttigieg’s supporters will go to Sanders than to Biden

Still, let’s assume the best-case scenario — that the remnant from Mayor Pete’s campaign will help Biden or someone else besides Sanders crawl across the 15 percent threshold in a number of Super Tuesday states. 

Even if this happens, Buttigieg is probably dropping out too late to provide much help to Biden or Mike Bloomberg or Elizabeth Warren. In many Super Tuesday states — particularly California — early voting has already locked in as many as half of the votes that will be cast. 

President Trump suggested immediately that this was the beginning of a Democratic conspiracy to undermine Sanders. This is a great way to troll paranoid Sanders supporters, and it will surely work in that regard. But is it true?

Another possibility — perhaps just as plausible — is that Buttigieg simply saw the writing on the wall. He is polling in single digits in the Super Tuesday states of California, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota. His best shots at reaching the delegate threshold appeared to be in Michigan and Virginia. 

Buttigieg’s campaign’s strength to date has been its ability to game the system in small states by out-organizing his opponents. This is what he did in Iowa — winning in delegates despite receiving fewer votes than Sanders — and he very nearly surprised Sanders in New Hampshire as well. 

Buttigieg might have realized that he cannot win such small guerrilla victories on the grand battlefield of Super Tuesday, which is why he decided to quit while he was ahead. 

A Fool and his Money: Thanks in large part to his disastrous performance in his first debate, Mike Bloomberg’s half-billion dollars of spending so far has not bought him the polling boost he needed in order to become the nominee. 

More to the point, if Biden is suddenly viable again and can stop Sanders from getting the nomination, then Bloomberg is unnecessary.

Polling suggests that Biden’s sudden resurgence — even if it is temporary — could render Bloomberg’s entire expenditure useless. It’s amazing to watch so much money go up in smoke so fast. 

Senate 2020

Alabama: The race to determine the challenger against the accidental Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., is expected to go to runoff.

Former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R, is expected to reach the runoff, likely against former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. Rep. Bradley Byrne is expected to finish third, with Roy Moore in a distant fourth.

Given President Trump’s famous falling-out with Sessions, it seems likely that any role he plays in the race will be for his opponent. It remains to be seen whether Alabamans would prefer to forgive Sessions or condemn him for falling afoul of Trump.

This is a seat Republicans must reclaim if they are to keep the Senate in GOP hands this fall.

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