As Joe Biden stumbled through months of debates and disappointed in the first three contests of the Democratic primary, his surrogates developed a kind of mantra: Wait until South Carolina — you’ll see. Variations on the theme were repeated so often that they felt destined to be proven utterly worthless, like so much of the political wisdom of the past five years.
Instead, the refrain surprised by being true: On Saturday, Biden crushed the Palmetto state primary, and his victory was so convincing that it set off a cascade of otherwise unthinkable events: Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the primary, followed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Then the former rivals appeared together on stage in Texas where — after months of arguing that he couldn’t win, or rebuffing his attempts at an alliance — they both officially endorsed Biden. Even former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke — who once said a potential Biden administration would constitute “a return to the past” — emerged to throw his support behind the former vice president.
For Biden, the great winnowing came not a minute too soon, but was it too late? We will know a lot more after Tuesday, when 14 states, one territory and registered Democrats living abroad will go to the polls. Here are four burning questions we have going into the most important day yet in the Democratic primary:
Was South Carolina an Outlier? Was Nevada?
It’s easy to see that everything good that has happened for Biden in the past two days — in addition to Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke, he’s also gotten last-minute endorsements from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a number of state officials in Texas and California — happened because of his strong performance in South Carolina, in particular with black voters, who make up two-thirds of the electorate there. But there is still a question of whether that success can be replicated in other states with large shares of African American voters. Biden had major advantages in South Carolina that he won’t have elsewhere — the relationships and familiarity he’s cultivated over years of visiting and vacationing in the state, and the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, which 61 percent of Democratic voters cited as an “important” factor in their ultimate decision.
DNC rules award extra delegates to the most strongly Democratic districts, and of those so-called “superdistricts” up for grabs on Tuesday, eight are majority or plurality African American. If Biden performs as well in those places as he did in South Carolina, it will be a major boost for his bid.
The same questions about whether Biden’s extraordinary showing in South Carolina can be replicated in other states can be asked about Sanders’ impressive results in Nevada, where entrance polls indicated that Sanders earned three times as much support from Latino voters as Biden, his closest rival. And if a majority of Hispanic voters coalesce behind one candidate, it could make a big difference in the general election: This year, for the first time ever, Hispanic voters will be the largest non-white group in the electorate — a record 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November. Tuesday will give an early indication of what’s to come — Latinos make up 30.5 percent of eligible voters in California; in Texas, it’s 30.4 percent. That could be good news for Sanders. Issues Latino voters say are most important to them (raising the minimum wage, expanding health care coverage) are the same issues Sanders has been advocating for.
Who Will Minnesotans Back?
By the time Amy Klobuchar got up on stage with Joe Biden on Monday night, more than 57,000 absentee ballots had already been accepted by the state, where 92 delegates are at stake. Fifteen candidates appear on the ballot in Minnesota — including Buttigieg, Steyer, and Cory Booker — and only five of them are still in the race. The biggest question is what will happen to those votes that would have gone to Klobuchar, the state’s senior senator. Up until she dropped out, she was polling ahead of Sanders in her home state, with 29 percent of the vote, compared to his 23 percent, according to an MPR survey released a few days ago. Klobuchar reportedly recorded a radio ad announcing her support for Biden that will be airing in Minnesota Tuesday morning, but it remains to be seen how much her endorsement might boost Biden, who was previously polling at 8 percent in the state, behind third-place Elizabeth Warren.
Speaking at a rally in St. Paul Monday night, Sanders appealed directly to supporters of Klobuchar and Buttigieg: “The door is open, come on in!” he said.
What Does the Shakeup in the Race Mean for Warren’s Campaign?
With so much attention on Monday focused on Biden’s big endorsement windfall, there was little talk of the news that two political powerhouses — EMILY’s List and the National Organization for Women — offered late-breaking endorsements of Warren shortly after Klobuchar suspended her campaign. It’s hard to say how much influence the support of either organization might mean, but it is, at the very least, a reminder that the abrupt elimination of Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Tom Steyer from the race could play out in a lot of different ways. And Warren could use a break right now: The Massachusetts senator, once a frontrunner for the nomination, has fallen to fourth place, behind Bloomberg, in the national poll average. Surveys show she’s running second to Sanders even in her home state of Massachusetts, which votes today. But she is also running second to him in California, where there will be a large number of delegates up for grabs.
How Much Did Bloomberg’s Money Actually Buy?
It’s easy to forget, amid all the reshuffling in the past 48 hours, that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg still hasn’t competed in a single contest. When he jumped into the race in late November, Bloomberg did so with a specific strategy: He would skip the first four primaries and stake his entire campaign on Super Tuesday. Today, we’ll finally find out whether Bloomberg’s big gamble paid off. He’s spent more money than any primary campaign in the history of this country, $500 million-plus, with much of it concentrated in states voting today: $8.2 million in Alabama, $3 million in Arkansas, close to $70.9 million in California, $8.5 million in Colorado, $2.6 million in Maine, $9.8 million in Massachusetts, $11.4 million in Minnesota, $12.8 million in North Carolina, $3.9 million in Oklahoma, $6.2 million in Tennessee, $51.9 million in Texas, $3.3 million in Utah, $757,621 in Vermont, and $5.6 million in Virginia.
But, so far, polls haven’t shown the strategy paying off: Of the states where recent polling is available, Bloomberg has cracked 15 percent in just two, Utah and North Carolina, and he has slipped in recent national surveys following a pair of widely panned debate performances. But the dearth of polling in states where he’s made a considerable investment — places like Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Oklahoma, and Tennessee — means a win, or even a strong performance, could be a narrative-changing surprise for Bloomberg’s campaign, and for the whole primary contest.