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Larry Donnelly: It's Super Tuesday, so is Biden the new 'comeback kid'?

Bernie may secretly have welcomed a Biden victory in South Carolina, but not to this extent, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

BACK IN 1992, when the then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was seeking his party’s nomination for president, he was reeling from revelations about extra-marital affairs and his military service record.

He staked everything on a strong showing in New Hampshire. And although he didn’t win the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, finishing runner-up warranted his famous exclamation after the votes were counted: “New Hampshire, tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid!”

bill-clinton-campaigns-in-new-hampshire Governor Bill Clinton speaking at a rally at Hesser Business College in Manchester, New Hampshire on February 17, 1992. The Clintons were campaigning in advance of New Hampshire's «First in the Nation» presidential primary. Credit: Ron Sachs / CNP Source: DPA/PA Images

Following his romp in South Carolina, many now wonder if Joe Biden can claim this mantle in 2020. For he ran terribly in Iowa and in New Hampshire and was way behind Bernie Sanders in Nevada.

The money was drying up; some of his big-money donors were panicking; and the billionaire former New York mayor, Mike Bloomberg, was emerging as the only person who could stop the democratic socialist from Vermont. If he didn’t win in South Carolina, the jig was up for Barack Obama’s vice president.

A good effort from Buttigieg

Before exploring the nature and potential impact of the Biden landslide, it is worth considering briefly the candidacy of South Bend, Indiana mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who announced he was leaving the race over the weekend.

election-2020-buttigieg Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced the ending of his campaign for president, in South Bend, Ind on Sunday. Source: AP/PA Images

To his credit, “Mayor Pete” went from total obscurity to being a formidable presence in the selection process for the past year or more.

Not even 40 in a field dominated by others old enough to be his mother or father, he garnered notoriety as a gay, married man and a thoughtful, energetic leader. What his future holds is unclear.

Buttigieg is probably too far to the left to win election to state-wide office in his native Indiana, but he too much a politician of the middle for many Democrats. Nonetheless, He has a lot to offer and one hopes that he will remain in public life. Buttigieg has endorsed Biden as has Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who ended her bid for the White House yesterday.

sc-joe-biden-meets-with-supporters Joe Biden won big in South Carolina at the weekend. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Biden is bolstered after South Carolina

Biden has already subtly and not so subtly asserted that, because he has won by a huge margin in the first primary (Nevada is a caucus state) held in a place that reflects his country’s diversity, he is best positioned to beat Donald Trump.

Boosted by a late endorsement from legendary Congressman James Clyburn, Biden won the African-American vote convincingly. Equally significantly, moderate to conservative Democrats, still a large voting bloc despite their being underrepresented in the party’s hierarchy, coalesced around him.

This is not good news for Mike Bloomberg, who entered the fray on the premise that Biden would collapse. Bloomberg has been spending money like a man on death row. One cannot turn on a television anywhere in the United States for more than half an hour without seeing one of his ads. He has burned through more than 500 million dollars to date.

Central to Bloomberg’s messaging has been that he is a moderate, can-do businessman who is not a typical politician. He is fishing for votes from the same pool, ideologically speaking, as Joe Biden. The opinion polls indicate that he has gained some traction.

At the same time, however, Bloomberg is wholly lacking in charisma and is not going to inspire anyone. He was very poor in the first debate he partook in and only slightly improved in the second. He is on the ballot for the first time this Super Tuesday.

Sanders is sanguine

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has sought to downplay Biden’s victory. Sanders’ strategists note that Hillary Clinton actually won more than 70 per cent of the vote there in 2016 and Sanders himself stated that “there are a lot of states in this country…nobody wins them all…now we head to Super Tuesday.”

And this year, citizens of fourteen states, one territory and Democrats Abroad – including in Ireland where ballots will be cast in Dublin today and Galway this Saturday  – will make their decisions on the most important day of the campaign thus far. Fully,  1,357 of the 3,979 available pledged delegates will be awarded. It will tell us a lot.

Last week in this space, I ventured that Sanders might privately welcome a Biden win in South Carolina because it would keep him in the race and, therefore, reinforce the political dynamic of multiple, more centrist aspirants divvying up the support of Democrats wary of nominating a man who honeymooned enthusiastically in the Soviet Union. Yet the scale of Biden’s triumph was unexpected and constitutes a setback to the extent that it shifts the momentum in his direction. And worryingly for Sanders, he fared badly with African-Americans in South Carolina.

That said, Sanders still is ahead, and well in front in some cases, in delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, such as Texas and California. Moreover, because of early voting, the ‘Biden bump’ will not be as pronounced as it otherwise might be.

Additionally, in the event that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has another dreadful outing, she may opt to abandon ship, effectively ceding to the Vermonter an exclusive hold on the party’s left wing.

ca-bernie-sanders-campaigns-ahead-of-super-tuesday Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Los Angeles, California last weekend. He continues to be the man to beat. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Given all of these realities, Bernie Sanders continues to be the man to beat. But I am not saying so with same conviction or certainty as I did before South Carolina. A South Carolina resident who went for Biden after a lengthy period of indecision summed up the major obstacle to Sanders’ being chosen to do battle with President Trump: “I think Bernie has some good ideas. The socialism part – that’s taking it a bit far.”

This can be overcome if both Biden and Bloomberg stay in, regardless of what happens today. It is far more complicated if one of them opts out. Sanders should be hoping that they each get what they need from the voters, and no more, this Super Tuesday, to fight on for as long as possible.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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