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On The Trail: Steyer's flop a warning to Bloomberg

For months, former hedge fund manager Tom SteyerTom SteyerSteyer says he has 'no plans' to run for public office again GOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 MORE showered millions of dollars on South Carolina. He paid party strategists, state legislators and activist groups thousands to stump for his campaign, and he rallied alongside prominent musical acts such as D.J. Jazzy Jeff, Juvenile and Yolanda Adams.

Then the polls opened, and Steyer's support vanished. Again. By the end of Saturday night, Steyer had ended a presidential campaign that never gained traction.

With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Steyer was stuck at just under 12 percent of the vote. It appeared he would not win any delegates in South Carolina, the fourth consecutive state in which he has been shut out of the delegate hunt, despite spending more than a quarter billion dollars on his presidential hopes.

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Instead, it was former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Biden, first lady send 'warmest greetings' to Muslims for Ramadan The business case for child care reform MORE who claimed an unexpectedly big win Saturday. Biden claimed almost 49 percent of the vote, a larger share than any other candidate has won in any of the four early contests this year.

Steyer's embarrassing South Carolina defeat is a repeat of the other early states, where he has spent millions of dollars on television advertising and expensive ground game operations only to come up woefully short. He never polled above 5 percent of the vote in Iowa or 8 percent in New Hampshire. In Nevada, where he spent more money than any other candidate, he dropped from third to sixth in the closing weeks.

But his South Carolina decline was especially precipitous. A week ago, Steyer was polling in a strong third place, just behind behind Biden and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAmazon workers have spoken — are progressives listening? What's really behind Joe Biden's far-left swing? It's time to declare a national climate emergency MORE (I-Vt.). On Saturday, he won zero delegates.

"There are no shortcuts in presidential campaigns. Name ID can be bought, but you've also got to put in the hard work and show you can deliver in the polls," said Laurin Manning Gandy, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. "Black voters in particular are pragmatic voters. They don't want to waste their vote. That's why they bailed on Steyer."

Instead, in the final days, his support appeared to collapse as voters who once considered backing the political neophyte from California opted instead for the veteran politician who has spent decades courting their support. Exit polls indicated that Biden profited especially from a last-minute endorsement from Rep. James Clyburn (D), the House majority whip.

"My buddy Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnThe information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all Pelosi says Ethics Committee should investigate Gaetz The digital divide existed long before COVID-19 — let's make sure it doesn't live on after MORE, you brought me back," Biden said Saturday at a victory celebration.

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The voters who abandoned Steyer offer a potential hint of what might be in store for Super Tuesday, when 14 states and a territory get their say.

Those states are the first time another billionaire, Mike Bloomberg, will be on the ballot — offering a critical test of whether Democratic voters of all demographic groups will stick with the candidate who has purchased the most paid media or flock to the candidate whose better-than-expected performance garners the most earned media.

Bloomberg has spent more than a half-billion dollars on television advertisements so far, more than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing White House races clock to beat GOP attacks MORE's presidential campaigns spent on the entirety of their paid media efforts in both 2008 and 2012.

Bloomberg's money will buy him another three minutes of airtime Sunday night to give what his campaign painted as an equivalent to a presidential address on the coronavirus that threatens to become a global pandemic.

But for all that money, Bloomberg has not built himself an insurmountable lead. Among the Super Tuesday states where public polling has been conducted in recent weeks, Bloomberg leads in Arkansas and Oklahoma, trails Sanders in second place in Utah and Virginia, and places no better than third anywhere else.

"Bloomberg's built a strong ground operation in nothing-flat, but he hasn't put in the elbow grease himself, and you can't skip that part and win," Manning said.

A Bloomberg campaign memo positioning himself as the only candidate who could challenge Sanders for the Democratic nomination seemed premature even before Saturday's results; now, it seems downright presumptuous.

A Bloomberg spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden, who began the race as a fragile front-runner and who suffered through months of devastating blows to his pitch as the most electable candidate against President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE, scored a substantial win Saturday. His final percentage of the vote will be somewhere around half, 10 points higher than his polling average and the first time in three presidential campaigns that he has actually won a primary.

It was a dramatic reversal of fortune for a candidate whose dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire once had the buzzards circling his campaign.

"Biden led wire-to-wire in South Carolina. Some of his weaker voters shopped around after Iowa, and then came home in the last week," said Nu Wexler, a longtime Democratic strategist and former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

The win will give Biden some desperately needed momentum ahead of Tuesday's vote. So will last-minute endorsements Biden has received from prominent Democrats in those states — Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers | Diversity chief at Special Operations Command reassigned during probe into social media posts Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers House panel advances bill to repeal 2002 war authorization MORE (D-Va.), former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDemocrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act Senators eye rollback of Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act To Build Back Better, Biden must invest in modern apprenticeship system MORE (D-Va.) all endorsed Biden in recent days, and Clyburn will campaign for Biden in North Carolina.

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Those nods make a difference in key Super Tuesday states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee, where black voters make up a substantial part of the Democratic electorate; and in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Utah and California, where Hispanic voters play a huge role in the Democratic primary.

"It matters whether your congressman or the most important African American leader in your state says, I know these guys and this is the one I would go with," said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist. "That's what Joe Biden's always had. It's not just that there's already affinity there because he was Obama's vice president and [his] history, but because a lot of the black caucus and people like Clyburn are with him and they say that and it matters."

And the fact that the three other prominent candidates — Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE (D-Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.) and former Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Senate Republicans label Biden infrastructure plan a 'slush fund' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Congress returns; infrastructure takes center stage MORE — remain in the race are likely positives for Biden.

Warren finds herself in a dogfight with Sanders in Massachusetts, while Klobuchar leads in Minnesota, both states that might otherwise fall to Sanders. Buttigieg's campaign on Saturday laid out their own path to relevance, which relied on overlooked regions where Sanders did well during his 2016 campaign.

"If you're Biden, you want Amy to stay in through Tuesday, stop Bernie from winning Minnesota. You want Warren to stay in and stop him in Massachusetts," Trippi said. "The rest of the field, at least in terms of Super Tuesday, is a buffer to hold Bernie back."

Biden is likely to finish Super Tuesday in second place in the race for delegates, behind Sanders, whose campaign is surging in California especially. Millions of California voters have already turned in their ballots, and the most recent poll conducted by the University of California-Berkeley for the Los Angeles Times showed Sanders leading by a 2-to-1 margin.

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But California isn't the only prize up for grabs on Tuesday, and Biden's win in South Carolina could give him a pivotal leg up in states where voters are only now tuning in.

"California is probably gone, but this win could give Biden a nice boost in Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and other southern states where he has mostly been dark," Wexler said.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.