South Carolina Voters, Not Party Leaders, Rejuvenated the Democratic Establishment’s Effort to Stop Bernie

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Conway, S.C., February 27, 2020. R (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Claims that Joe Biden’s improbable resurgence was orchestrated from above by party bigwigs are greatly exaggerated.

There has been a dramatic flurry of activity among influential actors in the establishment of the Democratic Party over the past 48 hours, all of it aimed at helping consolidate support behind Joe Biden and defeat the formidable, risky candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders. On Sunday night, after Pete Buttigieg announced the end of his candidacy, Barack Obama called the former mayor and urged him to consider how best to use his leverage. On Monday, Senator Amy Klobuchar also dropped out, and, along with Buttigieg and former representative Beto O’Rourke, endorsed Biden in Texas, a very important Super Tuesday state.

Though it hasn’t yet succeeded, the Democratic establishment’s effort to stop Sanders has already invited numerous favorable comparisons to the GOP establishment’s failure to stop Donald Trump from becoming the party’s nominee in 2016. The implication of such comparisons is that Democratic bigwigs have managed to clear the race’s moderate lane and revive Biden’s flagging fortunes all by themselves.

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But that’s far from true: While a handful of key endorsements undoubtedly helped Biden’s remarkable turnaround, the voters of South Carolina deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

Biden defeated Bernie Sanders by 29 points in the Palmetto State, with neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar breaking into the double digits. Buttigieg did not drop out and endorse Biden merely because he got a phone call from Obama or because he put the interests of the Democratic Party ahead of his own. The fact that Buttigieg was polling below the 15 percent threshold necessary to win delegates in California, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, and the rest of the South was surely far more persuasive; when he said that he saw no path forward in the race, it was believable, because he really didn’t have a path forward. (The same goes double for Klobuchar, whose standing in the polls was even worse.)

In 2016, if Marco Rubio or some other Republican had won South Carolina by 29 points, there would have been a similar cascade of establishment support for him. But Trump beat Rubio in South Carolina by ten points after having won New Hampshire by 20 points and Nevada by 22 points.

Sanders entered Saturday with the knowledge that if he won South Carolina by any margin, the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination would effectively be over: No one would have a realistic chance of stopping him from building up an insurmountable delegate lead on Super Tuesday. The resistance to Sanders going forward would have been even weaker than what Trump faced in the back half of the 2016 primaries. Party leaders would have fallen in line.

Sanders failed and now finds himself in a dogfight.

Can “the party decides” thesis be salvaged by crediting prominent Democrats with Biden’s victory in South Carolina? Only in part. Representative Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden on February 25. But there was some polling evidence that even before Clyburn’s endorsement, Biden had rebuilt his sizeable lead in the state.

A PPP poll conducted February 23–24 showed Biden with a 15-point edge. A Clemson poll conducted February 17–25 showed Biden with an 18-point lead. And a Monmouth poll conducted February 23–25 showed Biden with a 20-point lead. The results in Nevada on February 22, where Biden finished a distant second behind Sanders, were enough to make it clear to voters that the former vice president was the only Democrat with a chance of stopping Sanders in South Carolina.

The approval of Clyburn, the influential 14-term congressman and House majority whip, surely mattered to the final outcome, but the polls suggest that, at best, his weighing in helped turn a big margin of victory into a landslide for Biden. For that, Clyburn deserves ample credit from those opposed to a Sanders nomination, because the size of Biden’s margin surely helped fill his dwindling campaign coffers and knock out Buttigieg and Klobuchar, prompting a flood of endorsements from previously undeclared party honchos. (Here, the comparison to Republicans in 2016 holds up: South Carolina’s Republican governor at the time, Nikki Haley, tried to stop Trump by endorsing Rubio, but that endorsement only helped shrink a huge Trump lead into a big Trump victory.)

In short, party leaders have some influence, but only so much. Voters are not sheep. And when you look at the decision by Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader from Nevada, to withhold his endorsement before the Nevada caucuses but endorse Biden after South Carolina, it is fair to say that Democratic leaders have followed their voters much more than their voters have followed them in 2020.

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