From Failure to Finalist

L. Ian MacDonald

March 4, 2020

Never in the history of presidential primaries has there been such a stunning reversal of fortune as the one that, in just seven days, has vaulted Joe Biden from failure to finalist in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Only a week ago, Biden’s campaign was deemed doomed to failure unless he could salvage his first win in South Carolina last Saturday, and then hold his own against front-runner Bernie Sanders in Super Tuesday’s primaries in 14 states.

Not only was the left-leaning Sanders leading in the polls by double digits in delegate-rich California and Texas, but Biden had failed in the early going to emerge as the candidate of moderate Democrats.

Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg competed with him in the bidding for moderates. The odds on Biden’s bid then lengthened with the arrival of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who spent half a billion dollars of his own money offering to save the Democratic party from the socialist Sanders and the United States from four more years of Donald Trump in the White House.

So pervasive was Bloomberg’s $235 million media buy that his campaign took newspaper ads aimed at Democrats living abroad, including a half-page full-colour ad in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, reminding them of their eligibility to vote.

At $560 million for his entire campaign, Bloomberg spent nearly four times as much as the limit for all Canadian parties combined on the 2019 federal election, according to Elections Canada numbers. Mind you, with his worth estimated at $60 billion, Bloomberg only spent his annual return on investment. On Wednesday morning, after “re-evaluating” his campaign with his advisers, he dropped out and endorsed Biden. Super Tuesday turned out to be Bloomberg’s first and only active contest.

It was South Carolina that changed the course of the campaign and, perhaps, of history.

South Carolina was Biden’s firewall, with African Americans comprising 55 per cent of its voters, and a leader of the state, Congressman Jim Clyburn, whose eloquent endorsement of the former vice president became a rallying cry of solidarity and hope. That was only last Wednesday, with Biden leading state polls by about five points. Three days later, he won South Carolina by nearly 30 points.

In the meantime, Biden finally found his voice, saying it was a time for decency and unity in America, after the inglorious presidency of the narcissistic Trump. His victory speech was not only a joyous moment, but a powerfully authentic one.

Such was the magnitude of his win, and his sense of occasion in winning, that the other leading moderates immediately re-considered their own prospects. Rather than staying in for Super Tuesday as most observers had assumed, Mayor Pete and Senator Amy dropped out over the next two days and by Monday evening, both appeared with and endorsed Biden at events in Dallas.

Even then, the conventional wisdom was that if Biden could somehow limit Sanders’ expected sweep of California and Texas on Super Tuesday, he could keep the Vermont senator to a plurality rather than a majority of delegates in July, forcing a second ballot where party officials would be allowed to vote and deliver a brokered convention to Biden as the party’s consensus choice to defeat Trump. That was the best-case outlook for a moderate coalition under the Biden banner.

This was not the Bloomberg scenario, but apparently there are some things that money can’t buy. He achieved the 15 per cent of the vote required as a threshold for winning delegates in only five out of 14 Super Tuesday states, though he did win American Samoa.

Meanwhile, Biden, with virtually no money and no ground game, won five states in which he didn’t even appear, and at least nine in all, and probably 10 pending a final count in Maine.

One was Klobuchar’s state of Minnesota, with her ringing endorsement from Dallas still on the air, and her own organization working on the ground for Biden, who defeated Sanders by 39 to 30 percent. And another was Massachusetts, where Biden beat Sanders 33 to 26, with home state Senator Elizabeth Warren finishing a shocking third at 21 percent. That should have given her something to think about Wednesday in terms of her chances of overtaking Sanders for the progressive vote, somewhere between slim and none.

Sanders is often criticized for a certain churlishness and lack of grace. This was apparent in the last days of his Super Tuesday campaign in Minnesota and Massachusetts, of all places. This was the equivalent of Justin Trudeau ending his campaign in the ridings of his rival leaders. Bad form, and simply not done.

In the event, Sanders might have spent his time better in Texas, the second most populous Super Tuesday state, with 228 delegates in play. With his strong Latino base, Sanders was supposed to win big, but Biden beat him by 33 to 30 percent in the biggest surprise of the night. And even in California, the richest lode with 415 delegates, Biden limited the damage, trailing Sanders by 33 to 24 percent.

When all was said and done, pending a final apportionment of the California vote, Biden was actually ahead in what has become a two-person race.

It’s now a completely polarized campaign between Biden as the candidate of the moderate centrist wing of the party, and Sanders as the standard-bearer of the left. Americans don’t have a problem with a social democrat, as Sanders has styled himself, but socialist Democrat? That’s something else.

More mini-Super Tuesdays may now determine the race in states such as Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which provided Trump with his margin of victory in the Electoral College in 2016. Only Biden can make sure that doesn’t happen again.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.