Just a few days ago, perhaps even as few as thirty-six hours ago, it looked as if Sen. Bernie Sanders was well on his way to a possible victory in South Carolina as former vice president Joe Biden began to stumble. The Real Clear Politics polling average showed the pair neck and neck on Feb. 22, with less than a three percent lead, on average, for Biden in the Palmetto State. Then, some new polling data came out this week, and the tide looked as if it was beginning to shift back toward Biden’s direction. After that, the South Carolina Democratic Debate took place on Tuesday night which turned into an “everyone attack Bernie” affair where the Vermont Senator took incoming fire from just about every candidate on stage, which you’d expect with his front runner status.
As of this morning, while the dust settles, Joe Biden appears to be in a much better position heading toward Saturday’s primary than he was late last week. His second-place finish in the Nevada caucus may have gone a long way in reviving his chances, and the surge in attacks on Sanders may be helping to tamp down some of his building momentum.
As an example, the latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, a Democrat-leaning partisan pollster, give Biden a strong lead:
PPP Poll of South Carolina Democratic Primary Voters
Conducted Feb. 23-24 | Source (PDF)
- Joe Biden – 36%
- Bernie Sanders – 21%
- Elizabeth Warren – 8%
- Tom Steyer – 7%
- Pete Buttigieg – 7%
- Tulsi Gabbard – 6%
- Amy Klobuchar – 3%
Here’s the complete RCP South Carolina snapshot right now, which generally shows better numbers for Biden more recently, while Sanders has been steady since last week’s surge:
As for the debate itself, most of the evening was a mess in terms of order versus chaos. The moderators lost early control of the discussion as candidates went full bore launching their pre-planned attacks which gave the target of their attacks time to respond, which then continued to spiral back and forth. The shouting, the arguing, and the bitterness was palpable as a viewer.
If you don’t have time to watch the entire debate video, watch this five-minute clip of highlights and you’ll get a gist of what went down last night in Charleston:
There were very few punches pulled, with the exception of questions about Sanders’ decision to withhold his medical records, a topic which surfaced last week at the Nevada debate but did not come up last night.
There was a feeling of desperation throughout most of the night with every candidate well-aware of the implications for their chances if they can’t do reasonably well in South Carolina, and then at least win something on Super Tuesday. For Joe Biden, despite his denials of calling South Carolina his firewall, the state is a must-win or his electability argument is destroyed.
Writing for The Week, David Farris says Biden had the debate he needed, which could be enough to keep him in play for winning his firewall state:
Even though the ever-reliable Sanders turned in a typically workmanlike performance, the unusually lucid Biden clearly gained the most. He forcefully pushed back against the other candidates, as well as the moderators. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis and as the stock market bled out trillions in the span of days, his foreign policy experience suddenly loomed large. And for once, he came into the debate with a real strategy: zero in on billionaire Tom Steyer, who could be sucking double digits out Biden’s margin in South Carolina. Win the night, win on Saturday, and worry about the rest later.
He’s not wrong. Biden isn’t just running out of time before the enormous delegate hauls of Super Tuesday — he’s also running out of debate minutes to make his case to persuadable voters. This is true for everyone, of course, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but Biden is the only one who has basically admitted he’s toast if he doesn’t win South Carolina.
While Biden spent some time arguing with Bernie, he made certain to throw some shade toward the candidate most likely to eat into his lead, Tom Steyer. The billionaire businessman has been putting a lot of effort into South Carolina, and polls show it’s been paying off. If Steyer siphons enough of Biden’s share, it’ll help put Sanders into contention for a win, or at least a very close second-place finish on Saturday.
It was one of the few times when Steyer, usually a non-factor in the race, had to spend time on defense since he poses a genuine threat to Biden in South Carolina. Whether Biden made enough of an impact remains to be seen, but his strategy was clear and his tactics were intended to hit Steyer with African-American voters, a bloc that Biden needs to capture a big majority of.
The big question is whether any of the attacks or the shouting did anything to derail Bernie Sanders from a march toward the 2020 Democratic nomination. He may not win South Carolina but that was going to be a heavy lift from the start. The question goes into Super Tuesday on March 3, when several states hold their primaries and the trajectory of the nomination could be sealed.
Did Bernie’s opponents place enough doubt or questions in the minds of voters to slow his march, or is it to the point where the political revolutionary has taken hold and caught fire with enough of the electorate to win by taking roughly one-third of the vote along the way?
The South Carolina Democratic Primary takes place on Saturday, February 29.
Super Tuesday voting takes place on Tuesday, March 3, across several states.
The next Democratic debate won’t take place until the middle of March, on Sunday, the 15th.