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Opinion Don’t buy into Joe Biden’s momentum

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during his primary-night rally in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. (Tom Gralish/AP)

Former vice president Joe Biden’s stunningly large victory in South Carolina on Saturday will give his campaign much-needed energy going into Super Tuesday. That doesn’t mean he has supplanted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the front-runner.

Biden’s win was more a feature of demographics than a serious comeback. South Carolina was the first state to vote with a large black voting population, and Biden had always retained that demographic’s support. Though no pre-election poll predicted he would win the 61 percent among blacks that the exit poll says he captured, all showed him with a strong lead with black voters. Biden’s landslide win was entirely due to the fact that blacks were 57 percent of all South Carolina voters.

The problem is, virtually no state that has yet to vote offers him such favorable terrain. Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi might equal that, and blacks will dominate Democratic electorates in Georgia and the District of Columbia. But that’s it. Blacks will be no more than a third of all voters in other southern Democratic primary states and rarely more than a quarter in northern ones. Getting 61 percent of the black vote will make Biden competitive, but it will not send him past Sanders.

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Sanders retained his strength among his core demographics even in South Carolina. He remains the candidate of choice for the young white voters in South Carolina. He is especially strong among Democrats who never attend religious services, beating Biden among this group with 36 percent. These groups will be much larger shares of the electorate in states yet to vote, and there’s no sign Biden will significantly diminish Sanders’s support in these demographics.

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Delegate-rich California is a case in point. Blacks are only about 7 percent of the total citizen voting-age population there and will be a slightly larger share of the Democratic primary electorate because of blacks’ overwhelmingly Democratic leaning. Hispanics and Latinos, a group Sanders has dominated so far but that were only 2 percent of the electorate in South Carolina, will likely be as much as a third of the Golden State’s primary voters on Tuesday. California’s white Democrats are also more liberal and more secular than South Carolina’s. Indeed, California’s Democrats are so liberal that the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) in second place behind Sanders. Sanders will likely trounce Biden in the Golden State’s delegate count.

Other liberal, white states voting on Super Tuesday are also unlikely be affected by Joe-mentum. Polls in Colorado, a state with only a 4 percent black population, also has Sanders comfortably in front with Warren in second. Biden is running fifth in Massachusetts and Utah, and fourth in Minnesota and Maine. These states award 286 delegates combined, more than Texas, and are demographically much more similar to Iowa and New Hampshire, where Biden struggled, than South Carolina. Expect Sanders to again trounce Biden in the delegate count from these states.

Paul Taylor is a corner store cashier in an impoverished area of Charleston, S.C. He is gay, black and a Democrat. And he may vote for Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

This doesn’t mean Biden can’t win. If he can replicate his performance among South Carolina black voters elsewhere, he will win in Alabama and could win in all of the other southern Super Tuesday states — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. If the media attention he will receive also moves some centrist white voters away from candidates such as former mayors Mike Bloomberg and Peter Buttigieg, he could win many of these states by convincing, if not landslide, margins. But he is still highly unlikely to win them by large enough margins to offset the huge delegate advantages Sanders will likely obtain in the white, liberal and secular states.

If this happens, Biden will be facing the same uphill struggle Hillary Clinton faced in her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama. She won many of the later voting Midwestern states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. But even winning these states by nine or 10 points couldn’t give her enough delegates to offset the delegates Obama was getting from smaller, more progressive states such as Oregon and Wisconsin. Under the Democrats’ system of awarding delegates in proportion to the popular vote, it is very hard to catch up once you fall behind.

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That makes a contested convention Biden’s best hope of becoming the nominee. The party’s superdelegates can vote from the second ballot onward, and Biden is easily the favorite among this group — the epitome of the Democratic establishment. Whether such a nomination would be worth having given the intense anger it would inspire among Sanders’s backing is another question entirely.

Biden’s landslide win has saved his campaign and recast the Democratic race. But just because he has pulled himself off the ledge doesn’t mean he’s not still staring at a very long and arduous climb to reach the summit.

Read more:

Hugh Hewitt: Enjoy it, Joe Biden, because it won’t last

Karen Tumulty: Joe Biden’s victory could reset the Democratic race

Megan McArdle: Yes, Biden won big in South Carolina. But where is he going to win big on Super Tuesday?

Jennifer Rubin: South Carolina may have just rescued the Democrats

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Super Tuesday’s viral politics