Joe Biden has been in politics for a half-century. In November 1970, the young Democrat won a seat on the New Castle City Council. It didn’t take long for Biden to catch fire in Delaware, where he unseated an incumbent Republican senator in 1972, barely meeting the 30-year old age qualification for membership in the United States Senate.
Biden has been through a lot in those 50 years. He has endured personal tragedy (losing a wife, a daughter, and his oldest son), struck his fair share of bipartisan agreements on Capitol Hill, served 8 years as vice president to the nation’s first African-American president, and has dreamed of sitting in the big chair the entire time. His first two presidential campaigns were busts; in 1987, Biden dropped out before primary voting even began. In 2008, he couldn’t break through the political machine of Hillary Clinton or the magic of Barack Obama. The former vice president only won his first primary contest last week, where his 30-point blowout saved his third presidential bid from sinking like the previous two.
It has become abundantly clear since the first caucus results in Iowa were tabulated that the Democratic primary would be a competition between two general poles: the establishmentarians who believed that returning the country to a pre-Trump era was the best way out of the darkness and the progressives who wanted big, bold, unapologetic structural change to the economic and political system. The second was dominated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; the first by Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Mike Bloomberg. The 2020 Democratic Party primary is similar to the Republican primary four years ago, when Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich clogged up the establishment lane and Donald Trump largely dominated the populist lane to himself.
For Biden’s campaign, South Carolina was a pivotal moment. It gave the operation a shot of life after horrible performances in the first three states and provided Biden with ammunition for his argument that other candidates who hoped to represent the moderate wing of the party needed to close up shop. Up until now, Buttigieg and Klobuchar didn’t buy the argument, viewing themselves just as electable as Biden. Given the basement-level support, the two Midwesterners registered with minority communities, an influential chunk of the Democratic Party’s base, those positions were always delusional. But self-confidence is pungent in the political business; Buttigieg and Klobuchar wouldn’t be the first presidential aspirants to believe they could pull off a walk-on-water moment. If math and logic were the only factors in a candidate’s calculations, both would have dropped out after Nevada. Instead, they left after flying out of South Carolina as jokes.
For Bernie Sanders, it was all well and good. A crowded moderate camp has been Bernie’s best friend in the race. It showed during the debates, when Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg were as interested in attaching each other as they were in attacking Bernie and the costs of his health care, education, and climate change plans. It showed in the first four states as well, where Sanders was able to win New Hampshire and Nevada and come in a very close second in Iowa in part on the backs of an anarchic group of moderates.
Now, with Buttigieg and Klobuchar gone and throwing their support to Biden, the moderates are consolidating around a single candidate. For better or worse, Joe Biden is now the representative of the Never-Bernie movement. Sanders will no longer have the luxury of being on top while his competitors are busy tearing each other apart.
The question before Super Tuesday is this: will it matter? Is Bernie Sanders’ momentum, fundraising abilities, and grassroots outreach too much for Biden to stop? Or should Democrats now prepare this summer for the first contested convention in 68 years?
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy organization focused on promoting a realistic grand strategy to ensure American security and prosperity.