You could almost hear the establishment’s collective exhalation after Joe Biden’s thumping win in South Carolina on Saturday night. Finally, on the fourth sampling in this remarkably polarised Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders has met a barrier, which is the African-American vote. The former vice-president can now credibly take on Mr Sanders in the decisive cluster of primaries over the next few days. But Mr Biden’s win should not yet be mistaken for national momentum. He owes a lot to James Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman, whose moving endorsement last week was cited by almost half of black voters as influencing their choice. In that respect, all politics is local. Moreover, Mr Biden has focused almost all his time and money on winning this one state at the expense of far bigger ones next week.
Yet he is back from the near-dead. In 1992 Bill Clinton turned into “the comeback kid” after he pulled off a second-place finish in New Hampshire. Mr Biden has now earned the moniker “comeback grandpa”. It would take a psephological sea change to convert the momentum he takes from South Carolina to come out top in the Super-Tuesday sweep next week. Mr Biden trails Mr Sanders in the national polls by double digits. Many big states, notably California, where Mr Sanders’ lead has been prohibitive for weeks, have already had unusually high rates of early voting. Next Tuesday’s likelier outcome is that Mr Sanders comes out top and there is a tussle between Mr Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren for second place. It is hard to believe Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar will not follow Tom Steyer’s lead in pulling out. Neither of them has much chance of winning any of the 14 states that vote on Tuesday.
At that point, the Democratic establishment will need to unite behind one non-Sanders candidate — assuming it is not already too late. If the party wants to convert Saturday night’s relief into actionable hope, it should persuade Mr Bloomberg to pull out of the race. It has been obvious for several weeks that the unintended beneficiary of the former New York mayor’s record spending has been Mr Sanders. It is hard to imagine Mr Bloomberg can be persuaded to drop out just 72 hours before his name first appears on any ballot. He has taken out a three-minute advertisement in this Sunday morning’s prime time window to address America on the coronavirus. Logic suggests Mr Bloomberg would have a far bigger impact if he spent that money on Mr Biden. Emotion will doubtless dictate otherwise.
The situation is rich and potentially bitter in irony. Mr Bloomberg entered the race in November after he concluded that Mr Biden was too weak to take on the left (Ms Warren was in the lead then, not Mr Sanders). Yet it has become increasingly obvious that his presence is the biggest obstacle to Mr Biden’s nomination. Mr Bloomberg could continue to run for the White House for several lifetimes without exhausting his personal wealth. “United we stand” is a chant of the left. The Democratic bigwigs should try to convert Mr Bloomberg to that way of thinking as fast as it can.