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1 March 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 1:17pm

Joe Biden’s landslide victory in South Carolina leaves him the main challenger to Bernie Sanders

The former vice-president has dented Sanders’ momentum but his rise may have come too late for him to win the nomination.

By Ivo Dawnay

Joe Biden, widely reported as the political equivalent of the walking dead, rose Lazarus-like last night to emerge as the decisive winner of the South Carolina Democratic primary. His revival – powered by a 60 per cent African-American electorate – casts serious doubt on what was expected to be a victory march for the radical Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders. 

Sanders, who is polling strongly in California and other Super Tuesday states, remains the favourite. But in a powerful and emotional victory speech last night, Biden hit all the right notes in his bid to become the “moderate” choice for the anti-Trump movement. “Most Americans don’t want the choice of revolution,” he said, in words clearly targeted at his Democratic opponent, “they want more than promises, they want results.”

Obama’s former vice-president received 48.4 per cent of the vote (255,662) to Sanders’ 19.9 per cent (105,070), with all the other candidates in single figures. Biden’s speech, and his landslide victory, owed much to the emotional endorsement of his candidacy by Jim Clyburn, the House chief whip and the most senior African American Democrat in Congress, who has a large personal following in the state. 

But only 48 hours remain until Super Tuesday when candidates will do battle in 14 states for delegates to the party’s national convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in July. Sanders, who graciously acknowledged his rival’s victory, appears strong in states including California and Texas, which send approximately 15 per cent of voting delegates to the Convention. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist and a Biden supporter, admitted on television last night: “Sanders’s strength In California is unreal – he’s got the money and the grassroots organisation.”

Furthermore, Biden’s surge may be too late. Under local laws, Californians can vote up to 29 days before the deadline and, by yesterday, 40 per cent had already done so.

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Another factor that will influence Tuesday’s contests is the fate of the also-ran candidates, such as Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, upstart 38-year-old South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Logic might suggest that it would be best for both Democrat frontrunners for all three to step down in the knowledge that their races have finally come to an end. But some Biden strategists believe that it might be preferable if they stay in the race until at least Super Tuesday, taking delegates from Sanders in several states.

Above all, the surprising scale of Biden’s victory will trouble the campaign organisers for billionaire media baron Michael Bloomberg. For him, a better result would have been one more evenly balanced between Biden and Sanders – begging the question: “Who can stop a blowhard president and a self-declared democratic socialist?”

Bloomberg, who has not yet formally entered the race, beyond spending a remarkable $500m on advertising, must now fear that the vacancy for a “moderate” alternative to Sanders has been filled. After two lacklustre debate performances, pressure will now mount on the three-time New York mayor to withdraw in favour of Biden. Few believe he will.

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For Sanders, reassurance will come from his high support among Hispanic voters, strongly represented in both California and Texas. The black vote – around 20 per cent of the national total – will now be seen as Biden’s natural constituency.

Last night’s outcome will add to the growing excitement over a presidential election campaign which is proving to be more unpredictable than anticipated. In normal times, it is thought that an incumbent president is almost impossible to beat, not least when the main economic indicators are all positive.

But these are far from normal times. All three leading candidates are in their seventies, with Biden now 77 and Sanders aged 78. Both would be older than America’s oldest president to date – Ronald Reagan, who left office after two terms younger than either would be upon entering it. Donald Trump himself is 73 as he seeks re-election.

Trump’s biggest achievement has been the state of the US economy with unemployment at a 50-year low (3.6 per cent) and real earnings rising at their fastest rate for a decade. Now, out of left field, the coronavirus outbreak has thrown all that in doubt with the largest stock market falls since 2008. 

Last night, Biden, whose campaigning and ground operation has been widely deemed lacklustre, appeared newly energised. His apparently unscripted victory speech displayed a passion and a vigour unseen until now.

At the same time, while Biden looks set to become the candidate of the Democratic establishment, Sanders has other strengths. The self-described socialist’s promise of “Medicare for all”, along with his pledge to introduce free college education and redeem all student debt, has made him the champion of the young. 

Biden’s pitch must be rooted in his experience and his status as the “grown-up in the room’. But whether he has the ruthlessness and, above all, the stamina to take on Trump and win remains the $64,000 question.