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Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands with former vice-president Joe Biden after the tenth Democratic 2020 presidential debate, at the Gaillard Center, in Charleston, S.C., in a Feb. 25, 2020, file photo.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Joe Biden beat goes on. And increasingly it appears that in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders may be beaten.

The Biden support that emerged in South Carolina and coalesced on Super Tuesday took firm form this week. With a commanding performance in Tuesday’s primaries in the first one-on-one confrontation of the 2020 campaign, the former vice-president delivered a near-knockout punch to the Vermont Senator, who now faces a decision about whether to carry his campaign further in the face of increasing if not insurmountable odds.

The result: a party that in modern times often has extended its nomination fight into June may be on the verge of settling on its candidate in mid-March, an astonishing change in a political landscape that less than a fortnight ago was on the verge of delivering a third consecutive humiliation to the Delawarean in his tries for the White House.

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“Now we’re very much alive,” Mr. Biden said in his victory statement from Philadelphia.

But in 11 raucous days of campaigning – conducted as fears of a virus pandemic took hold, as campaign rituals were altered and election night rallies cancelled, and as Democrats’ contempt for Donald Trump grew in the face of his efforts to play down the effect of the coronavirus threat – the party delivered an unmistakable message: it is far more concerned with driving Mr. Trump from the White House than in conducting an ideological range war.

Democratic delegate tracker: After Super Tuesday, what lies ahead in the Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden battle

Biden wins four primaries, solidifying lead over rival Sanders

In the days of the Democratic Solid South – days that are within living memory even of voters far less advanced in age than Mr. Biden, who is 77 years old – the phrase ‘’yellow-dog Democrat’’ was an important part of the American political lexicon. It meant that a voter in a state like Mississippi, which delivered a robust victory to Mr. Biden, would sooner vote for a yellow dog than for a Republican.

Today, results across the South – and now, with Missouri and Michigan having voted for Mr. Biden – in the Midwest as well, Democrats are fairly shouting that they would sooner vote for a yellow dog than for the President, and that they were persuaded that Mr. Biden was the best dog for that fight.

Nationally, a Quinnipiac University poll of Democrats and Independents released only hours before the polls closed Tuesday showed that four of five Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic believe Mr. Biden is either very or somewhat likely to defeat Mr. Trump. The poll, moreover, showed that Mr. Biden had a formidable 19-point advantage over Mr. Sanders – a margin likely to grow after Mr. Biden’s series of triumphs this week.

Next week the campaign moves on to the four important political states of Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Illinois, perhaps Mr. Sanders’s last stand.

That will be hostile territory for him. He lost all four states to Hillary Clinton in 2016. All those states but Arizona have large populations of blacks, who have been a major element of the Biden surge. In Mississippi, for example, Mr. Biden won seven out of every eight black votes even though Mr. Sanders was endorsed by civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson and, decades ago, was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a leading group agitating for racial integration in states like Mississippi.

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Mr. Sanders showed no signs Tuesday of abandoning the race, his second effort to win the White House, perhaps holding out hope that Hispanic voters in Florida (24 per cent of the population) and Arizona (31 per cent of the population) would breathe new life into his candidacy. A week ago, Mr. Sanders won 49 per cent of the Hispanic vote in California and 41 per cent of the Hispanic vote in Texas.

But the Hispanic vote, though a Sanders stronghold, is not monolithic. A third of the Hispanics in Florida are of Cuban extraction, and, in many if not most cases, those voters are ardent foes of the communism that Fidel Castro imposed on the island six decades ago. Mr. Sanders’s youthful praise for Mr. Castro and his more recent defence of the Castro record on literacy and health are sure to rankle Cuban Americans in Florida.

Mr. Biden prevailed in Michigan, the largest prize in Tuesday’s balloting and the state both candidates declared the centre of the day’s contests, even though he had no paid organizers there. Mr. Sanders, by contrast, had 25 paid staff members on the ground. That illuminated a vital part of the 2020 Democratic campaign. It is not a fire smouldering beneath the surface. It is a prairie fire.

In nature as in politics, prairie fires spark when lightning ignites flammable material. That is as good an explanation as any for the Biden phenomenon. The lightning came from the black vote in South Carolina and it ignited the flammable material that is the Democratic electorate, desperate for a standard bearer to deny Mr. Trump four more years in office.

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