Hillary's 'firewall' stopped Bernie. Biden's won't.
In a last-ditch effort to revive his crumbling campaign, Joe Biden's all-in on South Carolina, hoping his black support will beat back Bernie Sanders' momentum, but it's too late for the former veep.
Welcome to Terminally Chill—a newsletter that discusses sports, politics and other issues from a left-wing perspective—by Aaron Mayorga, an award-winning freelance writer and photojournalist.
IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be like this.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton and her team had written the game plan to stifle Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy: tread water in the early states before winning big once the primaries moved down South. Then, the strategy worked—Clinton swept all of the Dixie states handily, and won every Southern state sans West Virginia and Oklahoma en route to capturing the nomination that July in Philadelphia.
This go-around, Joe Biden and his camp have relied on an identical approach, but they’ve struggled to even tread water, finishing a catastrophic fifth-place in Iowa and fourth-place in New Hampshire. In what’s been emblematic of a dismal three-weeks for the former vice president, Biden bailed on a scheduled primary night appearance in Nashua, in favor of making face at an event in Columbia, S.C., the first sign that his presidential ambitions now hinge on a win in the Palmetto State.
“It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started,” Biden told the crowd that night. “There’s no end of the line.”
The reasons for why Biden bombed so quickly are numerous: paramount among them, campaign gaffes aside, he failed in convincing voters, and his donors, that being the ‘safe choice’, by default, made him the ‘inevitable choice’ for Democrats—as was the case when the party establishment closed ranks around Clinton.
That opening enabled former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, two moderates with a disproportionate appeal to white voters, to cut into his base and remain in the race longer than Biden would have wanted.
Not to mention, Biden has largely centered his candidacy around his ability to win—after all, he rode shotgun for the first Democrat to win a popular vote majority twice since FDR, his team must’ve reckoned. But the problem with making an electability argument is that you eventually have to start winning some elections, caucuses and primaries included, and Biden hasn’t shown a propensity for either.
In his two, again, catastrophic outings in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he teetered on the threshold of viability, Biden trailed Sanders by double-digits with nonwhite voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, by 21 points and 16 points respectively, according to entrance and exit polls. In other words, not only was Biden performing poorly in two of the most overwhelmingly-white states, he wasn’t faring much better with the few voters of color in said states. That Sanders has made such inroads with nonwhite voters, a story the mainstream media continues to ignore, is yet another factor in Biden’s precipitous decline and vulnerability to additional hemorrhaging of support.
Bearing this in mind, it’s impossible to see how Biden’s last-ditch attempt in reviving his campaign—in hunkering down and triaging all remaining resources towards South Carolina—will pay off. Put simply, where Hillary once had a reliable firewall, Biden’s support has eroded to the point where he has none.
Since early December, according to pollster Change Research, Biden’s seen his lead slip from seven points to nil and is now tied with Sanders statewide at 23 percent. A recent poll from UMass Lowell found a similar result, with Biden only up two, and statistically-tied, with Sanders (21 percent) in the South’s first primary.
In 2016, per exit polls, Clinton won big with black voters in South Carolina, who accounted for 61 percent of the electorate there, 86 percent-to-14 percent over Sanders. In the UMass poll, Biden’s standing with African-Americans clocks in at half of Clinton’s, with 43 percent supporting the previous veep; Sanders came in second with 20 percent and billionaire Tom Steyer right behind him at 19 percent.
Perhaps the most disturbing figure in that UML poll for Team Joe is that, after Iowa and New Hampshire, voters no longer see his aura of inevitability. When asked who they believed would be the nominee, 28 percent of South Carolinians picked Sanders, only 22 percent picked Biden; no other candidate broke ten percent.
Not only that, the number of respondents who thought Sanders would helm the Democratic ticket outpaced his support base by seven points (28 percent-versus-21 percent), suggesting that the supporters of other candidates are beginning to accept the possibility of Sanders becoming the nominee.
Biden’s faltering in South Carolina, and with black voters especially, has been corroborated by other pollsters. According to East Carolina University, Biden’s slipped nine points, from 37 percent to 28 percent, with Bernie up six percent in the same timeframe, amongst likely Democratic voters since late January. That same poll found Biden down eight points with black voters. Sanders, on the other hand, was ascendant, doubling his black support from 10 percent to 20 percent, with Steyer again close behind at 17 percent.
Nationally, the outlook doesn’t get much brighter for the Amtrak aficionado. As per the latest Morning Consult tracking poll, Sanders has opened up a near-double digit lead against Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Most critically for South Carolina, Biden’s nationwide lead with black voters has cratered, down to just a three-percent advantage ahead of Sanders; meanwhile, the Vermonter continues to run away with 47 percent of the black vote under the age of 30.
Adding to Biden’s electoral woes are the intervening Nevada caucuses, another early state where the former Delaware senator has shown signs of weakness. As said earlier, part of pitching yourself as the ‘most electable candidate’ eventually requires winning. Anything less than a first-place finish in Nevada will catalyze the crumbling of Biden’s Southern firewall, but there’s scant reason to believe Biden can win in the Silver State.
In the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s latest Nevada poll, Sanders leads Biden by seven points (25 percent to 18 percent). A poll conducted by Beacon Research, on behalf of the Steyer campaign, found a similar result: Bernie leading Biden by five points. Likewise, in a recent poll from Data for Progress, Sanders is lapping the field at 35 percent, up 19 on his closest rival, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By DFP’s count, Biden’s sitting in fourth, just beneath the margin of viability, at 14 percent.
Part of the reason Biden has struggled in Nevada has been, to repeat, the major progress that Sanders has made connecting with nonwhite voters. According to that DFP poll, Sanders has courted an astounding 66 percent of the Latino vote; Biden, the next closest, received just seven percent. The Review-Journal poll gauged Sanders’ Latino support at an even 50 percent, with Biden lagging far behind at 13 percent. Univision’s latest poll of Hispanic voters found Sanders maintaining a smaller but solid 11-point margin ahead of the former vice, 32 percent to 22 percent.
In 2016 entrance polls, about one-in-five Nevada caucus-goers were Latino, meaning Sanders has a key advantage above Biden and the rest ahead of Saturday’s caucuses.
Complicating matters further for Biden in Nevada—and by extension, South Carolina—is the continued presence of Tom Steyer. The former hedge fund manager has poured millions into the next two states. In Nevada, he’s blanketed the airwaves with more than 900 Spanish-language ads since Jan. 1.
That’s starting to pay off at Biden’s expense.
Circling back to that Univision poll, that also had Steyer breaking double-digits (12 percent) with Hispanic Nevadans. The Beacon Research internal poll also reflects this, pegging Tom Steyer’s Latino support at 18 percent, two points higher than Joe Biden’s. Making matters worse for Joe, Univision found that, while most would back Sanders if their first choice were nonviable, Steyer supporters were the exception. His “followers said they would support Biden as a second option,” they reported.
Put differently, Steyer’s essentially spoiling what would otherwise be Biden votes, and as Steyer edges closer to the right side of that 15 percent threshold, Biden’s already narrow path to the nomination becomes that much more tenuous. Again, for the reasons outlined above, it’s hard to imagine anything beyond winning would stop the bleeding for Team Biden, but Steyer’s uptick complicates Biden’s attempts at consolidating support in his universe of voters.
This isn’t exclusive to Nevada, either. The latest Winthrop University poll of South Carolina showed Biden’s lead has withered to just five points, that’s down from the 20-point he commanded on Oct. 1, 2019. The top gainers? Sanders, who saw his support increase from eight to 19 points, and Steyer, who jumped 13 points and into third.
“Flames seem to be licking through the cracks in Biden’s firewall,” said Winthrop poll director Dr. Scott Huffmon.
Assuming Biden turns in yet another dismal performance at the caucuses on Saturday and his slide in the polls deepens before South Carolina, the question then becomes, ‘well, who benefits?’ Many in the mainstream media claim the moderates, those candidates sharing an ‘ideological lane’ with Biden, such as Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or even Michael Bloomberg would be in prime position to take advantage.
These people are wrong.
Each lacks a demonstrable appeal to nonwhite voters. In fact, all have records that, upon further scrutiny, would risk alienating black and Latino voters.
Beyond that, most voters don’t think in ideological lanes; this isn’t to say that they don’t exist, they do. But contrary to the pundits, voters aren’t exactly bound by them (or even aware of them, in some cases). As evidence of this, let’s revisit the Morning Consult tracking poll, which asks respondents to list their second choice in addition to their first preference. That line of questioning yields some fascinating results. For example, one in five Bloomberg supporters nationwide lists Sanders as their number two, while one in three Biden supporters said the same. The inverse is also true: about 40 percent of Sanders voters picked either Biden or Bloomberg as their plan B. If voters really were beholden to ideological lanes, then this ‘lane-switching’ that Democrats are engaging in-between a self-proclaimed socialist, a centrist Democrat, and a former Republican shouldn’t be happening—and yet, there it is.
Rather than ideological lanes, most voters are instead motivated by far more practical measures: 'who’s winning?’; ‘who’s speaking most to my material needs?’; and, above all else in this election, ‘who can beat Trump?’
In that regard, it’s actually Sanders—with his legion of volunteers and groundswell of small donations—who’s poised to benefit the most from Biden’s collapse. Leading the popular vote in Iowa, and following that up with a victory in New Hampshire, has already started to dismantle the narrative that a socialist can’t win—and the people have started to take notice.
72 percent of Democratic voters said, in the newest ABC News-Washington Post poll, they believed Sanders could defeat Donald Trump head-to-head. That’s the highest of anyone in the Democratic field, three points ahead of Bloomberg, four clear of Biden and 14 above Warren. The explanation for this shift is actually quite simple: counter to Hillary Clinton’s public statements, Democrats really, really like Bernie Sanders, and that general admiration is finally converting into real support now that they’ve seen him actually win primaries, something Biden hasn’t done in three presidential runs.
Consider the Morning Consult tracker once more, which shows Sanders—famously not a Democrat—as being the most well-liked politician in the Democratic Party, which places his net favorability at +53. The next closest, Buttigieg, was +41. Magnifying our scope to individual states, this trend holds: in South Carolina, Bernie’s net favorability was on par with Biden’s, according to UML; and in Nevada, the Review-Journal, which is owned by right-wing billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson, found Sanders “had the highest favorability among the field.”
Barring anything but a win on Saturday in Nevada, which thanks to Sanders’ strong Latino base and Steyer’s spoiling effect isn’t likely, there’s nothing Biden can do to prevent Sanders from successfully breaching the South Carolina firewall to which he’s directly tied his White House aspirations. And, as Biden continues to tumble in the coming days, don’t be surprised if black voters, older ones, in particular, begin to coalesce around Sanders. Bluntly speaking, South Carolina may not be the ‘end of the line’ for the two-term vice president, but it’s certainly the beginning of the end for his final campaign for the presidency.