The week of destiny (or not) in America’s war to pick a new president

The week of destiny (or not) in America’s war to pick a new president
Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, 29 February 2020. The rally comes ahead of Super Tuesday and just after the polls closed in the South Carolina democratic primaries where early reporting has Sen. Sanders coming in second behind former US Vice President Joe Biden. EPA-EFE/SAMUEL CORUM

Joe Biden’s resounding win in the South Carolina primary sets up the action for Super Tuesday’s multi-state primary on 3 March. Lurking in the background are the Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis and a risky agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is entirely possible that by the end of this week — perhaps even as early as 6 March after all the allots are finalised — the fate of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination will be sorted out. Or not. If the latter, readers should steel themselves for months of increasingly bitter, trench-style political warfare, right up to the opening day of the party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in mid-July.

But even before the 14-state (plus Americans abroad and American Samoa) same-day primary to be held on Tuesday 3 March that picks a major share of the party’s convention delegates, South Carolina held its primary on Saturday, 29 February. For weeks now, former vice-president Joe Biden, his senior staffers, high-level supporters and ordinary backers have all been counting on the primary in South Carolina to be his redoubt, that “firewall”, that would re-energise his increasingly faltering campaign. It was now a campaign seen by the commentariat to be utterly dependent on achieving a convincing win in South Carolina, if he was to stay in the hunt for the nomination.

South Carolina was also seen as likely to be the end of the campaign for several other would-be nominees. In fact, over the weekend, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer dropped out of the hunt. Stay tuned for another would-be nominee or two to give up the chase — especially those with not-so-deep pockets or contributions.

The key downward progression for flailing candidates is that a poor level of support from actual voters leads to the fateful decline in campaign contributions. Without money, a campaign cannot put together and pay for the critically important polling, travel, staff costs, media buys and IT backbone costs. And without such things, a campaign virtually evaporates right in front of voters.

By Sunday evening South African time, the results largely confirmed the trends of the latest polling, but even more so. With some 99% of votes in South Carolina now counted, in a multiple-candidate field, in a dominant first place, there was Joe Biden at 48.4%, followed by Bernie Sanders at 19.9%, then Tom Steyer at 11.3%, Pete Buttigieg at 8.3% and Elizabeth Warren at 7.1%.

This win seems to have surprised Biden somewhat — and disappointed Sanders supporters a great deal more. Based on this win, the overall pledged delegate count now stands at Sanders with 56, Biden at 51, Buttigieg at 26, and Warren at 8. Once all the remaining delegates from South Carolina are apportioned, Biden’s total will creep up a bit more. However, these totals will change dramatically after Tuesday’s voting, where just under 1,400 delegates are up for grabs, or 34% of the total, and a further 28% of delegates will be up for grabs over the rest of March.

It seems likely, from initial surveys, that influential South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn’s warm endorsement of Joe Biden had had a real impact, given the fact that African-Americans represent around 60%-plus of South Carolina Democrats. Clyburn is a leading congressional Democrat and an African-American, and his support built on Biden’s longtime ties with black Americans, as well as Biden’s public embrace of his loyalty to and relationship with former President Barack Obama.

And in the end, this connection almost certainly proved decisive for Biden, especially since no other candidate could break through with black Americans the way he has managed to do. This South Carolina win, and the more general boost from Clyburn and other influential African-American figures, may have real impacts on the results of the primaries in several other Southern states on 3 March.

This South Carolina result points to a real distinction between the Sanders and Biden efforts to gain the nomination and even the very zeitgeist of their respective campaigns. On the one hand, candidate Sanders has made a point of calling his effort a “movement”, and campaign aides such as Nina Turner are saying Sanders has “made history” with his coalition of students, Latinos, Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, workers, and other politically “disenfranchised” people.

Three challenges to this approach are that while African-Americans seem to be gravitating towards Biden, this coalition is not yet energising more people than Sanders’ 2016 campaign managed to achieve and that such groups historically vote at much lower levels than the population as a whole. In effect, the Sanders movement must weld together wide-ranging groups of people with low turnout histories and sometimes varying interests into a cohesive voting majority, in opposition to yet other parts of the traditional Democratic Party’s heritage.

For those of us who have been around a while, we may sadly remember the less-than-successful outcomes for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Mike Dukakis, employing some of the same rhetoric and organisational thrust and movement zeal. Accordingly, one can wonder if a campaign built on exploiting the near-religious fervour of a movement can win the nomination, let alone the November general election. There, the question keeping current office bearers up at night becomes what this would do to all the down-ballot candidates — in an era where ticket-splitting by voters is increasingly becoming a lost habit.

Clearly no fan of Sanders’ candidacy, The Economist opined about him just before the Saturday vote that:

“During 30 years in Congress he has been primary sponsor of just seven bills that became law, two of which concerned the renaming of post offices in Vermont. An uncharitable observer might consider this the record of a blowhard.

“Mr Sanders has taken his preference for speechifying to the big time. With only momentary interruptions, he has spent five years campaigning to be president — ever since he decided to play spoiler to Hillary Clinton’s coronation. America’s most famous socialist is running for the presidency on more or less the same set of problems he has emphasised for all those many years (plus a more recent focus on climate change). Though his proffered solutions, in the form of fantastical reforms and vast spending pledges, look ruinously expensive and unlikely to pass Congress, a committed faction of Democratic voters like them enough to have made Mr Sanders the indisputable front-runner.”

Still, they added that “if he does well on March 3rd, Super Tuesday, when 14 states vote and one-third of delegates will be allocated, he will be uncatchable.”

Such a campaign strategy is quite different from that of Joe Biden’s. In the latter’s case, he is attempting to reignite the coming together for his support, for just one more time, key elements of the old, historic Democratic coalition, in his rhetorical appeals for party and national unity.

This is the alliance first constructed by Franklin Roosevelt back in the 1930s. The Obama legacy and the 2018 midterm election put into play for Democrats the growing suburban, college-educated class that used to be largely Republican, but, significantly, that coalition is now largely minus many southern whites who defected to the Republicans after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

At least at this point, it is not clear Biden can actually make this happen. Polling says he is in trouble in the two biggest states voting on 3 March — California and Texas. The Sandernistas hope the vast number of university students, a fast-growing Latino population and a history of support statewide for progressive positions, will stymie Biden in California; while the Latino population in Texas will do the same there — but only if they vote and if they are lined up solidly behind Sanders. Biden’s people obviously hope his South Carolina win will give him momentum, but there is only one way to test that. Voting.

One further wrinkle is that on Super Tuesday, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg makes his first actual appearances on primary election ballots. Until now, he has spent an absolute ton of his own prodigious cash horde to deliver some magnificently produced television and online advertising, but in his two debate appearances he, to put it delicately, underperformed.

Pummelled by Warren and others over some distinctly “unwoke” attitudes towards women, and the racially tinged excesses of “stop and frisk” police patrolling, he seemed unaccountably unable to push back with anything about his very real efforts on climate change, gun control, job creation, freedom of speech support globally, and even his support for cultural productions. Strange, but troubling, if one expected Bloomberg to sweep all before him, given his prior business and political successes.

Meanwhile, the Democratic bunfight is not operating in a public policy vacuum. The rapid spread of Covid-19 seems to have truly grabbed public concerns as the first deaths on US soil have been recorded, and as the Trump administration fumbled and bumbled its way towards a national response.

Along the way, inevitably, Trump chose to call the growing furore yet another Democratic hoax, and the question of just how prepared the country really is, given the denuding of many of the government’s public health offices that would ordinarily be large and in charge, hangs over the response since the president designated his vice-president as the man in charge.

Not surprisingly, the country’s stock markets — in tandem with every other international bourse — have taken major hits. This has basically wiped out much of the boom in values since Trump entered office. Much of this comes from the rapid decline in travel and demand for energy, as well as the dislocations of global supply chains; and these are things not easily fixed by the virtually incoherent happy talk coming from the president so far.

Amid all this, the president announced a kind of peace accord between the US and the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, although the actual Afghan government is almost on the outside looking in. This fighting has been America’s longest conflict (read here for some historical perspective), and ending it on some sort of positive note has been a Trump goal ever since his election.

The risk here is that things could slowly go very much worse for the Afghan government, or in a revival of fighting with the US’s remaining military personnel, just as the general election campaign takes off in early September. The president has said that if it does not go well, American forces could return in strength, but it is a rare person who believes he would do that in the middle of an election.

All of these things, taken together, almost certainly mean a messy, extensive Democratic Party fight for the nomination. Plus there is now the background noise for the campaign that includes the what-ifs of Covid-19, the long-term economic and financial impacts of that crisis, and the risks inherent in the Taliban accord. Beyond all these, there is the swelling refugee catastrophe in northern Syria, and the uncertainties of a divided Israeli political scene to keep everyone on edge. Interesting times. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.