COLUMBIA, S.C. — Did South Carolina catapult Joe BidenJoe BidenRand Paul calls for Fauci's firing over 'lack of judgment' Dems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Six big off-year elections you might be missing MORE back into real contention for the Democratic nomination — or just deliver a positive blip that leaves his central challenges unresolved?
That’s the big question after Biden romped home by almost 30 points in the Palmetto State primary on Saturday. No one honestly knows the answer.
On one hand, Biden exhibited his political resilience after a dismal start to his campaign.
He put down a clear marker that his support among African American voters remains formidable. More than 60 percent of black voters in South Carolina backed Biden, according to exit polls, against just 17 percent for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'It's not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms MORE (I-Vt.), the national front-runner.
On the other hand, Biden is struggling in some of the biggest states voting on Super Tuesday, including the largest prize of all, California.
Super Tuesday will also see former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWhat Democrats need to do to avoid self-destruction Democrats' combative approach to politics is doing more harm than good Battling over Biden's agenda: A tale of two Democratic parties MORE’s name appear on ballots for the first time, throwing a wrench into Biden’s hopes of consolidating moderate support.
Then there are the questions of how much momentum Biden can get from his South Carolina result and whether there is enough time for it to fully percolate.
Early voting had already begun in Super Tuesday states long before the results in South Carolina were known. A CNN analysis found that almost 2 million votes had been cast in Super Tuesday states by February 21 — a full eight days before the South Carolina primary.
The short period between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday also attenuates the kind of glowing media coverage a candidate might expect after such an emphatic win.
Still, Biden appeared revitalized at his rally here on Saturday night, dedicating his win to “all those of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind.”
He also took some of his most direct shots yet at Sanders, asserting that “Democrats want a nominee who is a Democrat” and that voters needed “results” rather than “promises.”
The former vice president’s supporters were similarly bullish. Moe Vela, who worked as a senior adviser to Biden during the Obama presidency, told The Hill, “This changes the race dramatically. ... I don’t know if you can put a price tag on momentum but what this does now is, it makes it a two-person race.”
Vela, in making that argument, was encouraging voters to see the race in simple terms: Biden or Sanders as the nominee?
It’s a lot more complicated than that — even if the two septuagenarians have now opened up a delegate lead on the rest of the field. By The New York Times’s count, Sanders now has 54 delegates and Biden 44, with Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Unanswered questions remain for Buttigieg, Biden on supply chain catastrophe Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave MORE, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., trailing in third place with 26.
Bloomberg could splinter the moderate vote on Super Tuesday and hurt Biden badly as the race for delegates intensifies.
In California, for example, a candidate must win 15 percent or more of the vote in order to get any of the delegates allocated on a statewide basis. In the most recent major poll of the Golden State, from CNN, Biden is just falling short of that threshold at 13 percent, with Bloomberg at 12 percent.
If that outcome were reflected in reality, it would not necessarily freeze Biden out of delegates entirely — more delegates are allocated on the basis of results in each congressional district than statewide. But it would still give Sanders a meaningful boost.
Bloomberg has all his hopes pinned on Super Tuesday, buttressed by his massive campaign spending. He has spent around $500 million since entering the race in late November.
In an emailed statement on Saturday evening, Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey emphasized that Bloomberg had not yet appeared on any ballot.
“Mike is the only candidate to campaign in all fourteen Super Tuesday states over the last two months and we look forward to Tuesday,” Sheekey said.
The South Carolina results did deal a serious blow to two other moderates in the race, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharGOP blocks Senate Democrats' revised elections bill Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Biden holds meetings to resurrect his spending plan MORE (D-Minn.). They finished in fourth and sixth place, respectively, with roughly 8 percent and 3 percent of the votes cast.
It seems unlikely that either will exit the race within the next 48 hours, however. Buttigieg is campaigning hard in Super Tuesday states, and Klobuchar retains a polling lead in her native Minnesota, which is among the states voting.
The permutations around Super Tuesday are complicated. In Minnesota, for example, Sanders is in second place to Klobuchar in polls, so he could benefit in the unlikely event she drops out now.
But overall, the picture remains one of division among moderates while Sanders keeps consolidating progressive backing — aided in part by the continued underperformance of Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Six big off-year elections you might be missing Republican spin on Biden is off the mark MORE (D-Mass.), who trailed in fifth in South Carolina.
Sanders’s team evinces confidence, given its Super Tuesday poll standings and the more general sense that the progressive redoubt of California is favorable territory for the Vermont senator.
In his speeches, Sanders has also been leaning into his argument that he is electable against President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE. During remarks at his final South Carolina rally here on Saturday afternoon, Sanders asserted that he led Trump “56 out of 60 times” in polls of a hypothetical race between the two.
Sanders got one more boost too. Early Sunday, his campaign announced it had raised $46 million in February. No other candidate is expected to come close to that total.
Sanders is strong. Biden has been boosted. And Bloomberg is about to jump in.
It’s game on for Super Tuesday.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.