Opinion

Joe Biden's campaign got a last-minute defibrillation in South Carolina

The former vice president's campaign was on life support. But he won big when he needed it.

A week ago, Joe Biden's campaign was near its death agonies. He had received 16 percent of the vote in Iowa, and 8 percent in New Hampshire, coming in fourth and fifth place respectively. His national polling had fallen significantly — with Mike Bloomberg spending a king's ransom on his campaign and eating into Biden's base of moderate support. Bernie Sanders, who won narrowly in both the first states, then a big victory in Nevada, started rising in the South Carolina polls.

However, Biden's campaign got a last-second reprieve, and he won handily in the South Carolina primary Saturday with nearly 50 percent of the total vote (and Sanders in a distant second place). It remains to be seen whether Biden will get similarly lucky outside of South Carolina, but this result undoubtedly keeps the former vice president's chances of winning the nomination alive.

So what happened? Let's start with the data. Starting about a week ago Biden started ticking up in the polls from his near-tie with Sanders, and quickly accelerated back to his previous commanding lead.

The most important EMT for the Biden campaign was certainly Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who endorsed Biden on Wednesday. Clyburn is both the highest-ranking African-American in the House of Representatives (as majority whip), a major power broker in South Carolina state politics, and a widely trusted figure in the local black community. In an NBC exit poll, 28 percent of respondents said the endorsement was the most important factor in their decision, and 22 percent said it was one of several important factors.

Biden also got no small amount of assistance from the national press, which spent the last several weeks having a screaming conniption fit over Bernie Sanders — particularly MSNBC, which is watched religiously by many older liberals. The anti-Sanders bias over the last week was almost cartoonishly blatant; practically every show save Chris Hayes' All In has resembled a strategy bull session for stomping the Sanders movement. Hardball host Chris Matthews had to apologize for comparing Sanders' victory in Nevada to the Nazi conquest of France in 1940, while the virulently anti-Sanders commentator Dr. Jason Johnson was "benched" for saying Sanders' black female staffers come from an "island of misfit black girls[.]"

Meanwhile, the fact that Biden repeatedly lied over the past couple weeks about having been arrested in South Africa 30 years ago trying to visit Nelson Mandela — part of a pattern of exaggeration and fabrication, which his campaign quietly admitted did not happen — got almost no attention. (It's one of many stories that would have destroyed a campaign in a previous age, but the constant firehose of insanity from President Trump has inured people to such things.)

At any rate, Biden had a lot of help, but it can't be denied that he won fair and square, and by a large margin.

That said, Biden will have to conjure up some lucky breaks if he wants to compete across the board on Super Tuesday, which is just three days away. While Sanders still seems to be second choice among black voters, he is wildly popular among Latinos — a larger group nationally than African-Americans and especially in the enormous states of Texas and California which will vote Tuesday. Furthermore, there are few other states with figures like Clyburn who can hand over huge numbers of votes on a silver platter. Biden's actual campaign is still not particularly impressive; even Clyburn was "unimpressed with Biden's presidential campaign operation in the state, frequently hearing about its disorganization and lack of resources," write Matt Viser and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in The Washington Post.

Indeed, this last-minute rescue mission could well create the worst possible outcome for Democrats, in terms of beating Trump — propping up Biden enough that he denies Sanders a majority or strong plurality of delegates, but does not actually win himself, setting the stage for a bitter fight at the convention that alienates one or the other's support base.

To avoid that possibility, one candidate will have to defeat the other. We'll know a lot more about that eventuality in 72 hours.

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