“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.” These were Rep. Jim Clyburn’s words at the conclusion of his passionate statement of support for Joe Biden.
The next day, on Feb. 29, South Carolina handed the former vice president a much-coveted and (among some Democrats) unhoped-for victory. It wasn’t just an isolated win after the first losses that seemed to have knocked him out for good. It was a return to the head of the pack, and a victory that presaged others to come.
His victories on Super Tuesday came as a confirmation. Looking at the US map, the seven southern states where people voted on Tuesday all went for Biden, including Texas. In these states, the black vote played a crucial role.
Clyburn is a seasoned politician and a member of the Democratic establishment. A well-known leader in the South, with a big audience and following in the black community, his endorsement is worth much more than what highly paid advertising space, investments in social media and favorable articles in the press can buy. Clyburn is one of those leaders who is able to move substantial parts of the Democratic electorate, not only in his home state, but everywhere in the country where African-American communities are politically organized at a higher level.
The key to understanding Biden’s resurrection lies in this crucial part of American political demography. It is also the key to understanding why Bernie Sanders appears to be struggling after an impressive start.
Explaining his support for Biden, Clyburn said that “Joe Biden has the proposals to make health care accessible and affordable. Housing accessible and affordable. Education accessible and affordable,” while “nobody is interested in getting anything for free. They want to be able to afford it and they want to have access to it,” in a dig at Sanders, whose platform calls for free healthcare and university education.
In the vision of a traditional leader like Clyburn, the crucial issue is the achievement of effective equal status by one’s community—in terms of rights, welfare, access to top positions, etc.—compared to all other communities, according to the standards of American “democracy.” This perspective views egalitarian discourse—at the core of Sanders’ vision and more class-focused than community-focused—with suspicion.
However, Bernie is still able to make inroads among African-American youth, as he does among all young people. These are new generations who are going beyond the identitarian outlines of their communities of origin, which previously served as the basis of Democratic thought. They are mingling, they are including others and are being included in turn. They get a strong feeling of commonality from having the same problems and aspirations.
Obama was also a figure who went beyond that older vision based on a series of predominantly demographic and racial balances, so much so that he was considered “not Black enough” by some blacks. Sanders goes even further, with a discourse aimed directly at the great social and economic injustices that are still afflicting all demographics of what is a very affluent country.
The rest of the Democratic race will take place around these “ideological” dilemmas that have characterized the internal debate in the party since the advent of Obama and then Sanders.
Biden represents the tried and true—“the devil you know,” if we may use the expression. The establishment and the various powers-that-be support him because they consider him more suitable than Bernie to beat Trump, even though they don’t hold him in particularly high regard. They fear his gaffes and they fear that he might come with a baggage of embarrassing scandals which Trump will know everything about. After all, Trump has emerged unscathed from the Ukrainian affair—but Biden hasn’t yet managed to clear his name.
The candidates who have dropped out of the race are lining up to support Biden, almost exclusively—bringing with them their organizations, their donors and their supporters. If Biden was running out of cash before the vote in South Carolina, now the donors are willing to open their wallets for him. Particularly generous will be the contribution of Mike Bloomberg, who exited the race yesterday and declared his support for Biden.
It’s an impressive show of strength from the establishment of the Democratic Party. The concerted attempt to kick Sanders out of the race for good is now underway. However, looking at the electoral data and the forecasts for the next stages of the race should lead Bernie’s enemies to proceed with the utmost caution.
Bernie’s success in California is very significant. While Sanders has been struggling to get African Americans to vote for him, he has managed to break through to the Latino electorate, which has now become a crucial must-win constituency in order to secure a victory in several key states, not only in the South.
With 41% in Texas, 49% in California and a powerful showing in Iowa and Nevada, the Hispanic vote has given Sanders an extraordinary boost. Once again, those voting for him are predominantly young, in a community with a high birth rate and a low average age, destined to make up an ever-larger share of the pie of American demographics.
Another question is that of possible running mates. Biden is under pressure to make his choice very soon, a move that—if successful—could consolidate his advantage. Especially if he can get Michelle Obama to join his ticket, a name that has once again been on everyone’s lips recently.