On Saturday, voters in South Carolina will take to the polls in the largest Democratic primary contest thus far, and the last one before all-important Super Tuesday. Each candidate has different stakes in the Palmetto State, and even if it does not prove dispositive for any particular candidate, the results will frame Super Tuesday. By this time next week we should have a much clearer picture of what the primary season end game will look like.
The South Carolina primary is far more diverse than the previous three races in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and looks demographically far more similar to the Democratic Party nationally. For candidates who do well, this is going to be a central talking point, essentially that this is the first “real primary.” So what does every candidate need to stay viable?
Sanders enters the race with an enviable combination of front-runner status and low expectations. That is political gold. He doesn’t have to do very much in South Carolina to maintain the momentum he has built up so far. He lost the state in a whopping landslide to Hillary Clinton in 2016, so even a third- or fourth-place finish would look pretty good moving forward.
But there are some signs that the Sanders campaign sees an opportunity for a knock-out blow. He has spent more time wooing voters there than might have been expected just a few weeks ago, and should he manage a shock win, or even a close second, he will land a powerful blow to Joe Biden’s comeback chances.
For the Biden campaign, South Carolina is absolutely do or die. They have all but admitted this. Biden has promised to win, and promised that if he wins, it will secure him the nomination. Biden is the favorite to win, but as to his second promise, that depends very much on what the win looks like.
A decisive victory of say, 10 or more points would be a very big deal, a smaller victory not so much. Part of the problem that Biden faces is that Super Tuesday falls so close to South Carolina, there just isn’t a lot of time for a bounce to form. He’d give a victory speech Saturday night and then have just Sunday and Monday to play comeback kid in 14 states. It’s not clear if that is enough time to help him much across the country in the Super Tuesday contests.
Over the past week, Warren has been mounting something of a comeback herself. Polling had previously been showing a Michael Bloomberg surge, in some cases vaulting him above her nationally. Two feisty debate performances in which she treated Bloomberg like a toy punching bag seem to have steadied the ship. But that might not matter much if she doesn’t beat Sanders. This is because she is the other candidate in Sanders’ far-left lane. If she can’t win this contest, the justification for picking her over Sanders for leftists doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
While he’s not on the ballot, again, South Carolina can still be crucial for Bloomberg’s go-for-broke Super Tuesday strategy. Thus far the primaries have broken well for him, with Sanders taking a lead and a muddle behind him looking pretty hopeless about defeating him. That’s what Bloomberg needs. But with Biden seeming to pull away, he might not get it.
A strong showing by Biden is the worst outcome for Bloomberg. The more it looks like Biden can actually win, the less likely it is that voters go soft on him and throw their hopes behind Bloomberg’s billions. His best-case scenario is an unlikely Sanders win, and his best likely scenario is that no dominant winner emerges.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar
The time is getting very late for Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Both in all likelihood need a shockingly good performance to propel them to a possible third or fourth place finish on Super Tuesday, and they face the same time limitation for that bounce that Biden does.
The problem is that it just doesn’t look like a good state for either of them. Amy and Pete were the best performers in Iowa and New Hampshire, at least among those not named Sanders, but neither has managed to turn it into the sustained momentum they need going into big states like California and Texas. After Super Tuesday, the calls for them to drop out could be very loud.
Tom Steyer is not going to be the nominee, and it’s not entirely clear why he thinks he could be. In fairness, he has polled well in South Carolina, but in very few other places. If he breaks 15 percent, which is doable, he will be viable and receive delegates, but he will still be laboring behind the other billionaire in the race, who has passed him without entering a single contest yet.
South Carolina makes presidents, they say. Or, at least Biden says so. Saturday is first and foremost about him, but it it could be the best he can do, given the sky-high expectations his campaign has set, is tread water. Anything short of a major blowout will be viewed as expected; anything short of a victory will end his campaign. Whatever happens, the table will be set for Super Tuesday. Groundhog-like, it should tell us how long this primary season will last.