Carolina and Corona

John Ellis
10 min readMar 1, 2020


1. The “Front-Runners.

In the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden got 15% of the “first vote.” In New Hampshire eight days later, he got 8.4% of the primary vote. In the Nevada caucuses, 11 days after that, he got 20% of the “first alignment votes.” Last night in South Carolina. Mr. Biden got 48.4% of the vote, winning every county and beating the party’s putative front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, by a margin of nearly two-and-a-half to one. Had Biden not done so, and as convincingly as he did, he probably would have had to end his campaign.

Sen. Sanders got 25% of the “first vote” in the Iowa caucuses, 26% in the New Hampshire primary and 34% of the “first alignment vote” in the Nevada caucuses. Last night in South Carolina, he got 20% of the vote. Put another way, he has won, in four states in four different regions: one quarter of the vote, one quarter of the vote, one third of the vote and one fifth of the vote. That he is the party’s “putative front-runner” tells you a lot about the weakness of the field. (All of the above data can be found here.)

The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination revolves around one data point from a Gallup analysis that was “posted” on the company’s website last November. It said:

Six in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer to see the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating President Donald Trump, even if that person does not share their views on key issues. By contrast, 36% say they would rather have the reverse: a candidate aligned with them on almost all the issues they care about, even if that person is not the most electable.

Whoever is the candidate of the 60% is going to defeat Bernie Sanders, who is the candidate of the 36%. And as noted in the numbers from the four states that have already “voted,” Sanders has only succeeded once in capturing a third of the Democratic Party’s primary and caucus-attending electorate. And that was in Nevada, where ~100,000 people participated. In Iowa, ~175,000 people participated in the caucuses. In New Hampshire, ~300,000 people voted. In South Carolina, ~527,000 people voted. Boiled down: the larger the electorate, the lower Sanders’s percentage of the vote.

Sanders is all but certain to continue to attract no more than one-third of the vote in Tuesday’s Super Tuesday primaries (except in Vermont and, perhaps, Maine). In so doing, he will continue to amass delegates (one third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be chosen the day after tomorrow).

But amassing delegates (although obviously important) is not what Super Tuesday is about. Super Tuesday will decide who defeats Sanders in the end and it will either be Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg. Tellingly, (and according to a Twitter feed I can’t seem to find this morning) Michael Bloomberg has not purchased any advertising time in any state that holds its primary or caucus after Super Tuesday. (Everyone is still seeing his national advertising, which is substantial, to say the least). Bloomberg’s entire campaign strategy is based on his being the last man standing who can defeat Sanders and go on to defeat Trump. If it turns out that Joe Biden is also standing, and standing taller, then Bloomberg is finished.

Michael Bloomberg made his fortune on the collection and manipulation of data. He makes business and political decisions based on data (except when he does so on whim, which is occasionally). If the data tell him he can’t win the Democratic presidential nomination because of Super Tuesday’s results, he’ll withdraw from the race and (I suspect) do whatever he can to insure that Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, is the party’s nominee.

2. The Others.

Early last summer, I wrote a piece for The Boston Globe that described how media coverage impacts presidential primary campaigns. The biggest impact it has is on rookie candidates who are dependent on big “bounces” following strong performances in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

If they do “bounce,” they continue to attract media coverage (and have video producers and political reporter assigned to their campaigns). If they don’t, as in the cases of Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, those video producers and political reporters are “re-deployed” (effective immediately after Super Tuesday, for budget reasons) and their campaigns expire due to lack of media oxygen. It’s not fair. It’s just a fact.

That said, the Super Tuesday campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are not pointless. Each is a plausible running mate for Biden or Bloomberg; Klobuchar is a plausible choice for Sanders. Each has performed impressively in debates (a key consideration in the eventual nominee’s selection process, since the vice presidential debate is one of the four nationally televised “events” of the general election campaign). Klobuchar probably has a regional advantage. The Trump campaign keeps talking about how it is going to “expand the map” to include Minnesota. Klobuchar being on the ticket would presumably make that go away. Warren is the more menacing “attack dog,” which is often the role vice presidential nominees are asked to take on. Mike Pence might “win’ a debate against Elizabeth Warren, but he won’t win on points. And she could flatten him. He certainly won’t flatten her.

So what can they do to make themselves useful on Super Tuesday? Win their home states! And in so doing deny Sanders a win in Minnesota and Massachusetts. If both Klobuchar and Warren win their home states, they will have improved their own chances of being on the 2020 ticket and improved the chances that the party will nominate its most “electable” candidate.

That’s the idea anyway and it’s not just any idea. It’s the idea of the entire “mainstream media,” who are absolutely terrified that Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic Party’s nominee and the composer of The Disaster Quartet: Trump re-elected, Mitch McConnell firmly in charge of the Senate, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a Federal judiciary chosen by The Federalist Society.

3. Biden.

The two great books about presidential politics in the United States ​in the post World War ll era ​are Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills and What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer​ (although my personal favorite is Losers, The Road To Everyplace But The White House, by Michael Lewis)​. In What It Takes, Mr. Cramer profiled six candidates who ran for president in 1988, one of whom was Joe Biden. (The profiles of George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole are, by far, the best portraits ever written about those two men).

Cramer liked Joe Biden and wrote about him fondly. Those who have known Biden over the decades share that affection. He’s the definition of a particular type of politician invariably described as “a good guy.” He’s also someone who didn’t win a single primary or caucus in two previous presidential campaigns. Going into the South Carolina primary, he was 0-for-3 and in danger of suffering a humiliating, career-ending defeat.

But he won! He won BIG! In a space of 24 hours, the “Bernie can’t be stopped” narrative was replaced by the “Joe Biden, Comeback Kid” narrative. A lot of people feel good about that, not because they support Biden’s candidacy or agree with him on policy matters. They feel good about it because they like him and they’re glad to see him have a good night, for once.

4. Covid-19​.

There are four pieces about the Covid-19 crisis that are must reading.

The first is “Will COVID-19 go away on its own in warmer weather?​” by Marc Lipsitch, whose job description is: Professor of Epidemiology and Director, Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.​ Prof. Lipsitch is one of the world’s leading experts on this exact question. ​His answer to the question is “probably not,” and certainly not without an heroic effort to contain the outbreak.

The second piece worth reading in full is Bill Gates’s blog-post at GatesNotes, entitled: “How to Respond to Covid-19.” It’s an excellent summary of where things stand and what needs to be done.

The third, posted yesterday and updated early this morning is: “How Prepared Is the U.S. for a Coronavirus Outbreak?​” by two New York Times reporters.​ (The answer is that the US public health system, or parts of it anyway, would almost certainly be overwhelmed by a substantial outbreak). It’s a very good reported piece.

The fourth is “How Iran Became a New Epicenter of the Coronavirus Outbreak” by Robin Wright of The New Yorker magazine. Since Covid-19 first became a full-blown crisis in China, people like me have been itching to write the “China’s Chernobyl” essay that would establish them (me) as Great Sages and Men/Women of Profound Insight.

Alas, President Xi’s ruthless and extraordinary response to the challenge posed by the virus has (apparently) stemmed the tide in China. Or at least forestalled a public health catastrophe. Kids in China are going back to school; a tell-tale sign that the worst might be over. The Great Profound Essay (GPE) will have to wait.

Ms. Wright, however, has written an important (and reported) piece, which suggests that while Covid-19 might not be China’s Chernobyl, it could well be Iran’s Chernobyl. Anecdotally, everything one hears from friends and sees on Twitter suggests that Ms. Wright is right; we could well be looking at Iran’s Chernobyl, complete with a national public health crisis, a breakdown of social order and the collapse of the regime.

Iran (along with South Korea) is now the “foreign” Covid-19 story to watch. South Korea’s crisis might result in a new government, but it’s not going to lead to a profound disruption of societal order and political institutions. Iran could be convulsed in a way that leads to the overthrow of the regime. The impact of that happening on the politics of the Middle East and geopolitics generally would be profound.

Read the whole thing.

5. What We Think We Know.

There are a lot of “givens” that people “know” about American politics that aren’t really true. Or true at all. Rachel Bitecofer has a piece in today’s Washington Post that looks at five myths about US elections and takes them down with relative success. The last three are, I think, exactly right. Here they are:

Myth №3. College-educated, suburban GOP women flipped the House.

After the Republican defeat in the 2018 midterm elections, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham said his party needed to address “the suburban-woman problem, because it’s real.” Political analyst Bill Schneider told the Hill.TV that he noticed “a lot of affluent, white suburban voters, well-educated, particularly women, fleeing the Trump party.”Yet party-loyalty voting in 2018 was typical, with 94 percent of all House votes cast by Republicans going to Republican candidates and 95 percent of Democrats voting for Democratic candidates, following the pattern of the past two decades. Senate party loyalty is only a little weaker — averaging 92 percent in 2018 and displaying little variation from the cycles before Trump.The real change was who showed up to the polls — more women, young people (who increasingly live in suburbs), Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans — not loyal voters who flipped. That meant electorates favorable for Republicans in 2014 became electorates favorable for Democrats in 2018. The real “swing” is the decision to vote at all, a choice driven largely by the backlash to Trump.

Myth №4: The American electorate is center-right.

After the 2016 election, CNN’s John King said that “America is a center-right country” and “is a lot more conservative, especially out in the heartland, than Democrats think.” And it’s true that polls show there are many more ideological conservatives in the United States (31 percent, in a survey by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, where I am an assistant director) than there are ideological liberals (16 percent), while a solid chunk in the middle (51 percent) call themselves moderate.But in the same surveys, voters express a clear preference for liberal policies, such as universal background checks for gun purchases (89 percent, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll), same-sex marriage (61 percent, according to Pew), giving legal status to “dreamers” (60 percent, Ipsos found) and legalizing marijuana (67 percent, in a Pew survey) — not to mention clear disdain for some key elements of President Trump’s agenda, such as building a border wall (60 percent oppose it, Gallup found) or 2017’s GOP tax-cut package (46 percent disapprove, according to Gallup).The gap is due to a polling phenomenon known as “symbolic ideology,” in which people support general principles like “limited government” and “equality.” Asked about specific policies, though, respondents manifest their “operational ideology,” in which they are consistently more progressive. The decades-long GOP messaging effort against “liberalism” symbolically has worked, but the party’s efforts to stamp out liberal policies have not.

Myth №5: High turnout helps Democrats; low turnout helps Republicans.

Both parties seem to agree with this premise. In 2012, Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai said new voter ID requirements would “win the state of Pennsylvania” for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, implying that the rules would keep some people from voting. In 2016, Sanders said: “Democrats win when the voter turnout is high. We can generate that. Republicans win when the voter turnout is low.” And it’s true that higher helps Democrats, because they experience greater drop off in nonpresidential cycles because of lower participation by key elements of their coalition: nonwhite and younger voters.But a recent study of nonvoters commissioned by the Knight Foundation found that universal participation would benefit the GOP in many key swing states. In Virginia, 35 percent of nonvoters would vote for Trump and 31 percent would vote for a Democrat. In Arizona, where Democrats are trying to make headway, 34 percent would vote for Trump and only 25 percent would choose a Democrat. In Florida, 36 percent of nonvoters would select Trump and only 31 percent would vote for a Democrat.That’s because the country is undergoing a long-term political realignment. Once dominated by rural voters, the Democratic Party is now the urban party; once urban, the Republican Party is now the rural party. America’s suburbs are ground zero, creating swing districts and swing states in places where the suburbs are competitive. Because turnout rates are nowhere near universal, even with the dramatic increases since Trump’s election, high turnout is benefiting Democrats in the suburbs, whereas high turnout in more rural and exurban areas boosts Republicans. Based on 2018’s participation rates, turnout in both geographic areas is likely to increase in 2020 over 2016, but the country’s population has grown increasingly dense, probably creating an advantage for Democrats.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.