Barring some kind of stunner, Joe Biden is going to win today’s South Carolina primary. Bernie Sanders will likely come in second.
This is expected. What is still unknown, and what will likely define the next 72 hours leading into Super Tuesday, is the margin between first and second. Biden, like Clinton in 2016, has staked South Carolina as a firewall state, hoping his connections with the African American community will propel him to victory and demonstrate the diversity of his coalition.
Biden is undeniably in the lead among Black voters. However, unlike Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2008, he is not running away with this block of voters, and there’s ample evidence that Sanders is gaining steadily on him. The biggest story out of South Carolina, then, is how much Biden wins by; the health of his coalition leading into the diverse Super Tuesday contests.
For some context, here’s how Obama and Clinton did in South Carolina in 2008 and 2016:
- Obama (55.4%)
- Clinton (26.5%)
- Edwards (17.6%)
- Clinton (73.44%)
- Sanders (26.06%)
Obama and Clinton both decisively won South Carolina, with massive margins over their opponents. With how large the field of candidates still is in 2020, there was never any chance Biden was going to perform as well. But: after three bruising loses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, there is a lot of pressure on Biden to perform well here. Donors, endorsers, and the Democratic establishment are all watching this race closely to see how well he does, and the media narrative in the days leading up to Super Tuesday will be shaped by the strength of his victory.
Three possibilities to watch for:
- A strong Biden margin (>15 points over Sanders). This would likely lead to a large infusion of donor cash before Super Tuesday, and likely consolidate support around Biden as the viable Sanders alternative.
- A narrow victory for Biden (<15 points over Sanders). Good but not spectacular. Somewhat of a reset on the “Sanders domination” narrative, and heightened pressure on Biden to perform well in southern Super Tuesday states. (Where he currently holds narrow leads in most polls and forecasts.)
- A surprise Sanders win. Highly unlikely, but it’s almost unimaginable to me that Biden would stay in the race if he lost tonight.
Today is a tone-setter for the next month of the primary: whether this race will become a coronation for Sanders, a drag-out fight between Biden and Sanders, or something in between.