Former vice president Joe Biden handily won the South Carolina Democratic primary, but take a step back and the victory wasn’t nearly as promising as his campaign might like to believe. Biden took a victory lap on the Sunday-morning talk shows — he’s desperate to close the gap with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) quickly — but look beyond his self-congratulations. It’s not the win Biden needed.

What Biden had to have was a smashing repudiation of Sanders — not just of Sanders but of the entire field, dealing a crushing blow to the hopes of every other would-be nominee and prompting several to drop out. That didn’t happen. Drawing well over 50 percent of the vote might have sent that message, but Biden fell short, with 48.4 percent at last count. So he can chalk up a win in a state heavily tilted toward him in primary demographics but one that won’t remotely be in play in November. By contrast, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada all could be up for grabs this fall, and Biden lost them badly.

Though heavily favored because of the Palmetto State’s large African American population, Biden gained only 61 percent of that demographic, according to exit polls. At first glance, that might seem more impressive than Sanders’s 43 percent of the youth vote, but think about this: The African American vote will account for only 12 percent of the November 2020 electorate, while the youth vote — millennials and Gen Z combined — come in at 37 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

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. (The Washington Post)

When President Trump asked his Friday night rally to indicate by applause whether they’d rather he face Sanders or Biden, the crowd clearly preferred a race against Sanders, which the president interpreted as their estimate of who would be easier to beat. That’s their error. Though I favor a Trump-Sanders race, it isn’t because the Vermont senator is the easiest Democrat to beat. Far from it.

Use the Post Opinions Simulator to pick a state and see what might happen in upcoming primaries and caucuses.

But a contest between Trump and Sanders would be clarifying. The debate is overdue.

Trump is the unlikely tribune of free-market polices and a peace-through-strength military buildup, and he has surprised by crafting, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a federal judiciary committed to the Constitution as intended by the framers, with subsequent amendments especially those that followed the Civil War.

Sanders would represent a radical turning away from market economics, a vast expansion of an already towering federal debt and the embrace of class politics that America has always rejected. Then there would be his foreign policy. Trump has criticized U.S. allies, but Sanders would abandon them completely as he surrenders American leadership in the world. The U.S. military would simply be slashed and burned.

The Manhattan-Beltway elites of both parties and the mainstream media don’t want to see that confrontation. They fear repudiation of their cloistered world view and disintermediation of their authority even beyond the pitiful levels to which it has already fallen.

Republican Tommy Blackwood of North Charleston, S.C. wants President Trump to stay in office, so he's trying to disrupt the Democratic primary race. (The Washington Post)

A President Biden would restore order; elite influence would be revived. A President Bloomberg would accomplish the same. Both of them know and court the elites that first Trump and now Sanders so vocally spurn. Thus throughout 2019 did Biden rally the talking heads and the old elites of the Democratic Party. But after three losses in a row in the first contests of the new year, his plurality win on Saturday in a deep-red state came too late, in a too-crowded field. Tom Steyer dropped out, and maybe Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) will join him, but the other survivors are likely to soldier on, hoping to arrive at the Milwaukee convention with enough delegates to use as leverage.

Biden may hang on too, amid a never-ending stream of gaffes. He was obliged even by the most supportive of his media accomplices to admit on Friday that, contrary to his claims three times in recent weeks, he had never been arrested while visiting South Africa in the 1970s to visit Nelson Mandela. Then last week there was the one in a Biden speech about meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997, to hammer out an agreement on the Paris climate accord, which was signed in 2016, and his astonishing assertion in the Democratic debate that 150 million Americans had died of gun violence since 2007.

Yes, Trump engages in “truthful hyperbole,” as former media mogul Conrad Black has branded it. But Biden’s serial flops must disquiet Democrats: With Biden the gaffe machine, they would lose one of their best lines of attack on the president. Yet Trump enjoys jousting with reporters, while Biden hides from them. That doesn’t bode well for Biden clearing the hurdles between now and November, even if the “Stop Bernie” movement proves more successful than the “Stop Trump” coalition ever did.

Super Tuesday is likely to put Sanders clearly back on top with many wins, including a thumping big blowout in California. No matter how Biden tries to spin it, if Sanders arrives in Milwaukee with a delegate lead, and with former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) holding enough delegates to put Sanders over the top, the deal will be done on the first ballot.

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