It was a remarkably Super Tuesday for Joe Biden. Three days earlier, he had never won a Democratic presidential primary. Now he has won at least nine. Forget the cognoscenti, who had long since written off the Biden campaign. His national ratings had also been heading rapidly south. Then an astonishing wave occurred. The scale of Mr Biden’s victory in South Carolina on Saturday answered a question that had befuddled most Democrats for months: which candidate was the strongest alternative to Bernie Sanders? Within 48 hours two of Mr Biden’s three centrist rivals — Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — dropped out and endorsed him. The third, Michael Bloomberg, may well follow suit in the coming days. The question is whether Mr Biden can sustain this momentum to a clean win of the Democratic nomination.
The alacrity of Mr Biden’s Lazarus-like re-emergence ought to give some pause. Though Mr Sanders is no longer the favourite — a position he has enjoyed for most of 2020 — he is almost neck and neck with Mr Biden in the delegate count. Next week’s clutch of primaries include Washington state, which he is on course to win, and Michigan, where he would have a strong chance. Moreover, it is unclear how much a Bloomberg endorsement would help Mr Biden. New York’s former mayor was the biggest loser of the night — and probably the most conspicuous failure of contemporary US politics. Never before in the history of US politics has one candidate spent so much money for so few delegates. The only territory Mr Bloomberg won after more than half a billion dollars in spending was American Samoa, which is not even a state. A Bloomberg endorsement for Mr Biden could even energise Mr Sanders’ base for the long ground-out primaries to come.
But the weather has changed in the Democratic race. It is no coincidence that Mr Biden’s strong uptick began on Wednesday when he was endorsed by Jim Clyburn, the deeply respected South Carolina congressman. To hear the former civil rights activist speak is to be reminded that politics is a serious business — not a branch of the entertainment industry. US politics has been changed by Donald Trump. Mr Clyburn’s moving intervention came just nine hours before Mr Trump gave his first press conference on the coronavirus. Having downplayed the threat of viral contagion, Mr Trump then handed the reins to Mike Pence, the US vice-president. The coincidence of events must surely have helped Mr Biden, who is running on experience. The discreet, but tangible involvement of Barack Obama, who has kept his counsel until now, must also have helped. The former president reportedly persuaded Mr Buttigieg to endorse Mr Biden shortly after the South Carolina results.
So what happens now? It is anybody’s guess whether Mr Biden can win a majority — as opposed to a plurality — of delegates, thus ruling out a contested convention in July. Mr Sanders does not give up. Barely a week after his heart attack in October, he was back on an almost normal schedule. This could yet turn out to be a grinding, Battle of the Somme-style primary. But two things are clear. The first is that Mr Trump and the large echo chamber around him will resume their targeting of Mr Biden. Expect the names Hunter Biden and Burisma to flood the airwaves having had a break of about a month. Ukraine will be back on the news agenda. Rudy Giuliani will return to America’s television screens.
The second is that the Democratic party’s new mantra is “decency”. Related terms include “dignity” and “empathy”. Mr Sanders has helped to pull the Democratic party sharply to the left. Mr Biden’s economic and climate change platform is considerably to the left of the Obama administration he served. But the party’s new watchword is decency. Tuesday night’s winner was Mr Biden. Its losers were Elizabeth Warren, Mr Bloomberg and quite possibly Mr Trump.