Hold the Autopsy: S.C. Win Breathes Life Into Biden Campaign

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Joe Biden gambled his candidacy on South Carolina and won decisively Saturday, the South delivering a shot of adrenaline straight into the septuagenarian heart of the former vice president.

“Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead,” he said at his victory celebration here. “Now, thanks to all of you, the heart of the Democratic Party, we just won, and we won big because of you.”

Take my pulse, he seemed to tell those who had been waiting to record the time of death — “we are very much alive.” Not only did Biden crush Bernie Sanders in the Palmetto State, he has nearly pulled alongside the front-runner in the all-important delegate count after four state contests. Sanders has 57, Biden, 51.

What, then, is the takeaway from South Carolina? That revolution is not inevitable. And that it doesn’t sell widely, or at least not in the warmer climes of America. So said the Biden supporters who crowded into a gymnasium at the University of South Carolina.

This was always Biden’s theory of the case. He had been losing, and losing badly. He watched a democratic socialist finish first in New Hampshire and then again in Nevada. He saw a young, obscure mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who had never won a statewide race, carry the Iowa delegate count (Sanders won the raw vote). The party’s elder statesman was quickly becoming an afterthought when he promised that South Carolina would be different.

It was in the middle of the night, and Biden had flown south before New Hampshire could even report its returns two weeks ago. When the wheels of his plane rolled to a halt in South Carolina, he wasn’t in the mood to be subtle. Forget the other early races, Biden told a crowd at the airport, “we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party.” He meant, he said, “the African American community, and the fastest growing segment of society, the Latino community.”

They turned out Saturday, and overwhelmingly for Biden. Early exit polls show that he won every single demographic group, in particular African American voters.

This did not surprise Dick Harpootlian, the fast-talking former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and now a state senator. “Iowa is the whitest state I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told RealClearPolitics before any results were even reported Saturday. This state, he continued, “looks more like America than any state the candidates have been in so far.”

South Carolina would reject the democratic socialist, Harpootlian said, because black voters don’t have much tolerance for self-appointed white saviors, for “conmen like Sanders.”

“Bernie is telling them, ‘Just elect me, and I’m going to spend 12 trillion on this and 20 trillion on that.’ They know it’ll never happen. They know that he is a fraud. ... They’ve had so many white folks show up promising nirvana, and it doesn’t pan out.”

Biden hit on this theme during his victory speech, echoing the words of Harpootlian, his decades-long friend. “Talk is cheap,” he said. “False promises are deceptive. And talk about revolution and change in anyone’s life -- we need real changes right now.” Three days before Super Tuesday, Biden heightened the contrast before voters: "We have the option of winning big or losing big, that's the choice.”

This is the binary choice Biden hopes will come to define the race if it narrows to himself and Sanders. And if it does, he will win, Inez Tenenbaum told RCP. “Bernie Sanders will not get crossover voters; Joe Biden will bring over moderate Republicans,” argued Tenenbaum, whom President Obama chose -- and Biden swore-in -- as chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

How does she know? “Because they tell me so! … People just aren’t going to vote for someone who calls himself a socialist,” she argued around the moment NBC called the race for the former vice president and supporters in the roped-off section broke out their celebratory cigars.

Trump agrees, and so do his supporters. He did a snap poll by voice vote on Friday night in Charleston. “Who is easier to beat,” he asked a 13,000-person crowd, “crazy Bernie or sleepy Joe?” The masses roared for the former, and the president concluded at that moment that “they think Bernie’s easier to beat.”

James Smith also agrees. He was the Democratic (and losing) nominee for governor here last cycle and he said that, yes, Sanders is “the weakest candidate for Trump to go up against.”

During an election where Democratic voters care most about removing Trump from office, it is a persuasive argument. And it is one that Biden hopes favors him. Since getting into the race, he had run against Trump and not the assorted field of fellow hopefuls. But things changed in South Carolina.

“He got aggressive,” said Jim Hodges. In the South, Biden went on the offensive and after his competitors, the former governor told RCP. Pointing to this past Tuesday’s debate, among other things, he said South Carolina will mark the moment that Biden “found his sea legs.” Another candidate, Hodges added, has met his ceiling.

Sanders disagrees very much, and he told his supporters so. He was in Virginia when he congratulated his competitor: "I want to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory tonight, and now we enter Super Tuesday and Virginia. And I believe very strongly that the people of this country on Super Tuesday, and after, are going to support our campaign because we are more than a campaign, we are a movement."

“You cannot win them all,” the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic primary said.

Tom Steyer came to the same conclusion. He did something different though: The billionaire philanthropist dropped out after a third-place finish in South Carolina, and this is good news for Biden. The absence means one less candidate who can swallow up voters. It was also a moment of glee for competing campaigns. Steyer had spent liberally but hadn’t performed well in any of the early states. One senior aide on a rival campaign felt sarcastic, telling RCP that Steyer was “$150 million well spent.”

Money can’t be stuffed into a ballot box, campaigns have concluded as one billionaire exits (but another remains). Those same campaigns still fear the grassroots army that has propelled Sanders, even if they assume that the Bernie congregation cannot grow beyond its cluster of true believers. Harpootlian called the Sanders campaign “a cult,” comparing the candidate to Jim Jones, the madman who led 918 of his followers, 304 of them children, to mass suicide four decades ago. But Biden and others, he told RCP, need to stop voters from drinking the Kool-Aid before it is too late. Excommunicate the leader, he said. Recondition the followers.

“It’s not a rejection of the cult that follows him -- the dead people who followed Jim Jones, you don’t reject them,” he said. “You reject him. He convinced them to kill themselves. Don’t blame them. Blame him.”



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