At 7 p.m. sharp, multiple networks called South Carolina for Joe Biden, breathing a collective sigh of relief.
The results, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said, called the viability of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign into question. “If anybody knows anything about winning the Democratic nomination and about what it takes for a Democratic nominee to win a general election, it is black voters,” Maddow said. “And if Sen. Sanders continues to underperform systematically with black voters, and if we see him get shellacked — not just beaten but shellacked tonight in South Carolina — because of his performance with black voters, that’s an existential question about that nomination.”
“I want every Democrat in the country to see what that looked like tonight: That is what winning looks like,” celebrated James Carville, an old-time political operative MSNBC brings on to panic its viewers. “That is the job of a political party. Not utopian fantasies, but winning elections.”
“The single most important demographic in the Democratic Party spoke up tonight,” said Carville on MSNBC, wearing a U.S. Marine Corps baseball cap. He said Sanders needs to answer for his lack of support in the state: “We get all enamored, and tonight we were reminded of what and who the Democratic Party is.”
“We cannot win unless we prove there’s excitement in the African American community,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, an ex-head of the Democratic National Committee, on CNN, going on to endorse Biden officially on air.
Maddow’s, McAuliffe’s, and Carville’s point — which became a major theme of cable coverage for the night — is, in the abstract, undeniable: A Democratic presidential candidate who can’t win the black vote can’t win the nomination. But the cable analysis carried on as if the only available information on the preferences of black voters came from South Carolina. In fact, black voters nationally have regularly been surveyed and, recently, Sanders has taken the lead among the demographic — a fact that was, at best, only mentioned in passing.
MSNBC viewers would be left to conclude that the same minority-voter problem that hobbled Sanders’s 2016 campaign remains a major obstacle. It simply isn’t true.
Last week, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found Sanders besting Biden by 3 percentage points nationally among black voters — certainly a relevant data point when considering whether Sanders can win among black voters. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Biden up 2 percentage points among black voters, while the Hill/HarrisX poll had Sanders up by 9. A Morning Consult survey recently found Sanders beating Biden by 5 points among all black primary voters, and thumping him by a 3-1 margin among black voters under 45.
In other words, the national picture does not exactly portend a “shellacking” among black voters — important context that was kept from MSNBC viewers, who would be left to conclude that the same minority-voter problem that hobbled Sanders’s campaign in 2016 remains a major obstacle. It simply isn’t true.
After SC, @maddow says that if Bernie Sanders "continues to underperform systematically with black voters... that's a existential question."— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) March 1, 2020
In reality, among black voters, Bernie finished #2 in NV & is #1 nationally! He's systematically leading. (https://t.co/3YdoKJh8sj) pic.twitter.com/rAzQNpiNpT
A handful of commentators, including former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a vituperative opponent of Sanders, acknowledged that South Carolina’s results may not necessarily translate into victory for Biden nationwide. “Unfortunately,” said McCaskill on MSNBC, “there aren’t a lot of Jim Clyburns.” Clyburn, an iconic civil rights leader and the uncontested party leader in South Carolina, as well as the number three Democrat in the House, endorsed Biden last week, giving his campaign the kind of boost that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
There are other reasons to suspect that Biden’s campaign won’t be able to sustain its high note after South Carolina. The state is one of the demographically oldest. According to CNN exit polls, 6 percent of voters were between the ages of 17 and 24, and 5 percent were between the ages of 25 and 29. Around 28 percent of voters in South Carolina were under age 45, compared to 45 percent in Iowa, 35 percent in New Hampshire, and 36 percent in Nevada.
What’s more, Biden spent an enormous proportion of his resources in South Carolina, which he hasn’t done in Super Tuesday states or beyond, and is running low on cash.
In 2016, Sanders was truly shellacked in South Carolina, losing a two-way race to Hillary Clinton by nearly 50 points. She beat him among black voters 86-14, according to exit polls. This year’s exit survey found black voters making up 57 percent of the electorate, with Biden winning 64 percent of that vote to Sanders’s 15 and Tom Steyer’s 13. (Steyer, who only performed as well as he did thanks to the millions he poured into the state, dropped out of the race as the totals came in.)
Everybody else was shellacked: Sen. Elizabeth Warren won 5 percent of the black vote, Pete Buttigieg 3, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar zero. Fortunately for them, they were barely mentioned during the TV coverage.
While MSNBC more or less omitted the forward-looking picture of the race, Fox News was more sanguine about Biden’s chances. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, played down what the win could mean for Biden in other states. Only one of the 14 races Biden will compete in on Super Tuesday have a demographic similar to South Carolina: Alabama. “If he cannot win anywhere without huge numbers of African American votes, the upcoming battlefield is not favorable to him still,” Fleischer said.
Former interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile told Fox News that Biden and other candidates now needed to show they could build a diverse coalition and bring the resources to compete in large and small states to amass delegates they need heading into the July convention. “The name of the game is delegates,” Brazile said. “For Joe Biden, clearly this was a victory that he desperately needed today in South Carolina.”
Overall, Biden is trailing Sanders in a number of recent national polls from Morning Consult, Fox News, and Yahoo/YouGov. The same is true in California, the state with the most delegates, where a Monmouth University poll released last week showed Sanders with support from 24 percent of likely California primary voters, and Biden with 17 percent. A Los Angeles Times/Berkeley poll released this week showed Sanders leading with 34 percent of likely California primary voters, with Warren at 17 percent and Biden, who had led the poll in June, at 8 percent. “Based on his 34% support in the poll, this state alone likely will give him well over 10% of the 1,991 delegates he would need to win the nomination at the national convention this summer,” the LA Times reported.
With the votes nearly all counted, Biden was heading for roughly a 29-point win in South Carolina, with only Biden and Sanders claiming delegates to the national convention; none of the rest seemed likely to meet the 15 percent threshold.
For Biden, it was a big first win of his presidential race — of any of his three presidential races, in fact: He had never won a primary or caucus victory before. “This is leap day, and he needed to leap back into this race,” said former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod on CNN. “This could narrow down very quickly to a race between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.”
Correction: March 1, 2020, 4:11 p.m.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Ari Fleischer coined the phrase “axis of evil.” The reference has been removed. The story also erroneously stated that Claire McCaskill works for One Country Project; she does not.