Ahead of Super Tuesday, South Carolina jolts Democratic race

Before the South Carolina primary, the race for the Democratic nomination was coming into focus. After the primary, things look ... different.
Image: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses supporters at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S.
Joe Biden addresses supporters at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 29, 2020.Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the preeminent voice in Democratic politics in South Carolina, didn't just endorse Joe Biden's presidential candidacy last week; he also set expectations rather high.

The day before the Palmetto State's presidential primary, Clyburn said that if the former vice president won by "just 10 or 11" percentage points, that wouldn't be good enough. Biden, the congressional leader added, needed to score a "substantial" victory.

And by any fair measure, that's precisely what happened.

Joe Biden got the resounding victory his struggling campaign needed in South Carolina on Saturday night, buoyed by strong support from black voters, according to an NBC News projection.

With just about all of the votes counted, Biden prevailed with 48.6% of the vote -- the largest percentage of any victor from the first four nominating contests. This was also the first time the Delaware Democrat, currently mounting his third White House campaign since 1988, has ever won a primary.

As the political world's focus shifts to Super Tuesday -- which, incidentally, is tomorrow -- let's take stock of where things stand for each candidate. In the order in which they appear to have finished in South Carolina:

For Joe Biden, the good news is he can now credibly claim to be the principal rival to Bernie Sanders for the nomination. His campaign spent weeks pointing to South Carolina as the former vice president's "firewall," and the strategy paid off (at least insofar as it breathed new life into his candidacy). What's more, Biden did so well in South Carolina that he's now second in the overall delegate count. The bad news is, he may not be able to fully capitalize in Super Tuesday contests, in part because so many ballots have already been cast by way of early voting, and in part because he hasn't had the resources to campaign in many of these states.

For Bernie Sanders, the good news is he's still very much the frontrunner; he's raising a ton of money; and he's likely to remain in front of the pack after the Super Tuesday delegates are tallied. The bad news is, the Vermont senator's overall trajectory still suggests he may not be able to lock up the nomination before the convention.

For Tom Steyer, the good news is he scored his first, last, and only top-three finish. The bad news is, he invested an enormous amount of his own money into a long-shot candidacy, and as Steyer exits the stage, he has very little to show for it.

For Pete Buttigieg, the good news is his campaign exceeded all expectations, and given how young he is, and how many people he impressed over the last year, his future in Democratic politics appears bright. The bad news is, as the results out of South Carolina made clear, the former mayor struggled to connect with minority communities, and he couldn't credibly present himself as Sanders' principal rival. His decision to step aside was unexpected, but rational.

For Elizabeth Warren, the good news is, with Buttigieg exiting the stage, she's third in the overall delegate count among candidates still competing, and if there's a contested convention -- a prediction the senator's team pushed yesterday -- Warren believes she can credibly present herself as a unifying candidate. The senator can also find some solace in her strong February fundraising totals. The bad news is, Warren has now finished fourth or worse in three consecutive contests, and she doesn't appear particularly well positioned in any Super Tuesday contests outside of her home state (which she may yet lose).

For Amy Klobuchar, the good news is she has a good chance to win the Minnesota primary tomorrow, which would deliver some much-needed delegates. The bad news is, back-to-back sixth-place finishes make clear the senator couldn't capitalize on her surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire.

For Tulsi Gabbard, the good news is she received more votes in South Carolina than Mike Bloomberg did. The bad news is, Bloomberg wasn't on the ballot.

For Mike Bloomberg, the good news is his latest debate performance was better than his first, and his breathtaking investments in Super Tuesday contests make it likely he'll score some top-three finishes, probably picking up some delegates along the way. The bad news is, the momentum he appeared to have in January and early-February -- rising in national polling, picking up a surprising number of congressional endorsements -- has stalled, and without some surprising success tomorrow, it's unlikely to return.

Watch this space.