Tomorrow we arrive at the fourth contest of the 2020 Democratic Primary: South Carolina. Before I get into the punditry and predictions, there are several pieces of important context to first address.
1. The delegate standings
Even this context needs context:
- Bernie Sanders is winning, but some argue he’s not turning out the “new voters” he promised — or, at least, he might be turning them out but also turning off just as many in a balance that might not lend itself to strengthening Democrats’ chances in the Electoral College. He’s also not exactly taking off in individual state polling in Super Tuesday. Though he’s leading most state polls and all national polls, that’s mostly because other candidates are dividing the rest of the pie. His share of the vote is not growing in the way you’d expect from a candidate who won the popular vote in the first three states.
- Pete Buttigieg is still in second, but Biden gained a lot in Nevada and will fly past him in South Carolina.
- Warren and Klobuchar look decent, but all their delegate came from third place finishes in one state. In the other two, they were both out of the top three.
- Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard are not on this chart — and appropriately so. They have yet to have a top-five finish, but remain in the race mostly to frustrate me.
2. There was a raucous South Carolina debate on Tuesday! I’ll graft my review onto today’s preview.
3. South Carolina has 54 pledged delegates up for grabs. The state and Congressional districts apportion as follows:
- Congressional District 1: 6
- CD2: 4
- CD3: 3
- CD4: 4
- CD5: 5
- CD6: 8
- CD7: 5
- Statewide: 19
- Total: 54
As usual, candidates need to get to 15% of the vote in a district or the state to get any of the district’s or state’s delegates.
4. Super Tuesday is just three days away! South Carolina’s results will impact media coverage and momentum, which should impact the polls and ballot boxes more than paid commercials and campaign stops.
5. The latest South Carolina polling from Real Clear Politics:
Okay, we’re ready! Prediction time.
South Carolina Predictions
Not on ballot: Michael Bloomberg
The next time people vote, Mike Bloomberg’s initiative to buy a presidential election will finally be eligible for voter response. His first debate performance was disastrous, while his second was merely awful. He still doesn’t have his sea legs, which aren’t yet appendages money can buy.
Of course, he deserves to look bad. He tried to get around eight debates and early-state retail campaigning by instead using his treasure chest to spend on later, bigger states. The penalty on that strategy is that he wasn’t acclimated to stormy February waters.
7th place: Tulsi Gabbard
6th place: Amy Klobuchar
Hey, you know what you’re getting from PPFA at this point. It’s painfully obvious to me that she’d make the best nominee in the field, not just for winning the presidential election and governing afterwards, but for impacting down-ballot races as well. Even here in South Carolina, where she has no traction, state legend James Clyburn thought of her as one of three finalists for his endorsement, praising her track record and productivity. Despite her falling viability, she continues to amass high-profile newspaper endorsements.
But voters disagree, and voters decide. She’s a distant sixth in polling (in South Carolina and nationally), won only 3% of the African American vote in Nevada, and she’ll finish out of the top five for the first time. Her Tuesday debate performance was good but not great. All she did was point to her record of getting things done, outline a detailed agenda of how she’ll accomplish goals in a realistic, bipartisan way, and embody the kind of big-tent pluralism that tolerates people of a wide range of ideologies rather than admonishing those who disagree. Booorinnnnggg.
My speculation is that she stays in only to win Minnesota on Super Tuesday, then she’s out.
5th place: Pete Buttigieg
Remember when I said Klobuchar earned 3% of black support in Nevada? That’s more than Buttigeig got. So South Carolina is not his state.
I thought he was tremendous at the debate and he gets my top mark. It was smart to identify the sweeping Democratic House takeover of 2018 being the result of 40 relatively moderate Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats, noting to Sanders that those 40 Democrats “are not running on your platform. They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can. I want to send those Democrats back to the United States House.” That was well-received by an audience in a state that has otherwise no intention of supporting him, and Democrats across the nation might consider that sobering portent, even if they ultimately don’t turn to Buttigieg as the alternative.
He is so consistently good at public speaking and improvising — not just in these debates but in forums and TV interviews as well — that a common criticism is that (I actually heard this complaint recently) he’s too good, so he comes across as rote or robotic. However, the sample size is so large now — for a year he’s shown this kind of consistency — that it’s unreasonable to think he memorizes the wording. It’s much more likely he’s just that smart. He’d probably offer the best contrast with President Trump, not only on a debate stage but across months of campaigning.
Perhaps sensing that possibility, President Trump did a weird thing: he agreed with a conservative commentator that Buttigieg was the most acceptable Democrat.
Trump knows full well such an “endorsement” would reflect poorly on Buttigieg, especially among progressive Democrats who respond with, “SEE?! Even Trump likes him!” It seems to me the President would rather avoid a showdown with the Rhodes Scholar veteran.
Fortunately for the President, South Carolina will help him avoid that. Though Buttigieg’s campaign insists it’s playing the long game, I think he pulls out by Wednesday to help clear the non-Sanders lane, which he’ll describe as a selfless act for the party. His future in the party is bright, after all. Remember, four years ago Sanders also struggled with minority voters. He has since put in the work to raise his stature with minorities to the point where he became Latinos’ preferred candidate and African Americans’ second choice. If Buttigieg can pair his success in the first two states — it cannot be overstated how incredible it is that a 38-year-old gay mayor from South Bend went toe-to-toe against Bernie Sanders in the opening contests — with increased acceptance among minorities, we’ll consider him the favorite for the nomination in four-to-eight years time, particularly if he adds some more experience in between.
4th place: Elizabeth Warren
We could call her Ms. Fourth Place at this point. After her third place in Iowa, she’s earned consecutive fourth place finishes and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a top three tomorrow. For the third straight contest, I doubt she earns a delegate.
Her debate was decent, and she kinda sorta went after Sanders by saying how awesome he was, just not as awesome as her. This light jab was predictably met by Sanders Twitter shouting “Swarm! Swarm! Swarm!” #PrimaryWarren, which encourages a “true progressive” primary opponent in her next Massachusetts Senate race, began trending within 48 hours.
Again, I don’t think Warren, or any other above candidate for that matter, will earn a delegate. That leaves the following three white septuagenarian men to compete over the delegates from a mostly black electorate. Whoever finishes in third will be right on the cusp of 15% viability statewide. Even if he falls short, he could still get some district delegates where he’s above 15%. I expect that candidate is…
3rd place: Tom Steyer
His top-three polling is an affront. I am affronted.
He spends his millions in the third and fourth state while others aren’t focused there yet, drives up his polling numbers. Fortunately, he then has a weird debate and fades. It should happen again.
That leaves the top two. I actually don’t think we’ll get the South Carolina drama some were expecting as this week began. We’re headed toward:
2nd place: Bernie Sanders (Debate review: though he was finally targeted by the debate stage, his certitude and passion allowed him to hold his own despite playing a road game in front of a frequently hostile crowd. He was at his most uncomfortable on guns. Apparently, he wants us to hold against Biden his votes from decades ago, but when it comes to Sanders’s gun votes we’re only supposed to consider his current vision. Selectivity also seems to apply when highlighting the positives of Cuba but the negatives of Israel. Just wait until Sanders supporters get word of these impurities. Swarm swarm swarm? Or do his imperfections get explained away while only others’ are deal-breakers. I think we know the answer.)
1st place: Joe Biden (Debate review: His least bad debate yet! It sure involved a lot of yelling, but his energy is clearly up, which is all a lot of people wanted to see. Still, he’s comically imprecise with most responses, quite unlike a Warren or Buttigieg. It just seems like people don’t need precision to like him.)
Why this result? It doesn’t take a political wizard to read the South Carolina polling trend lines.
It’s hard to imagine Biden not winning the state.
And that’s where it gets really, really interesting. As my initial prediction for the Democratic Primary laid out on the morning of the Iowa Caucuses, and as affirmed by my Nevada breakdown, Sanders could win the first three states, but much of that that momentum would be negated by a Biden win in South Carolina.
South Carolina’s 54 delegates — the largest of the early states — means Biden’s 30-delegate deficit would erode heading into Super Tuesday, which means Comeback Joe has momentum as we careen into the most important primary day of the cycle. (There’s even an unlikely scenario where Sanders and Steyer are kept under 15%, meaning Biden would get all or nearly all 54 delegates and take the overall delegate lead. At least one recent poll has that exact result, and respected Monmouth came darn close.)
Super Tuesday itself, though dominated by the California-sized motherlode that would ensure Sanders comes away with the most delegates that day (California has 415 pledged delegates — far, far more than any other state), gives us many southern contests (highlighted in blue below):
Sanders might come away with the most delegates, but Biden, coming off a South Carolina win, could win the most states and therefore the second most delegates. That means he can finally consolidate the moderate lane just as Klobuchar and Buttigieg drop out. He’d have the momentum moving forward and would have a shot to catch and pass Sanders as the primary progresses.
(Here’s a good time to say that I’m kind of bummed about this development. Sanders has been far and away the more impressive presidential candidate, so it seems kind of lame that Biden just advances to the Finals due to a second place Nevada result. Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that my two preferred candidates are Klobuchar and Buttigieg, and their collapses are required in Biden’s comeback scenario. Nevertheless, my lamentations do not affect my analyses.)
To be clear, all of the above is no certainty. It’s just Biden’s best case scenario. Sanders remains the most likely nominee because so many more scenarios favor him. Instead, what a South Carolina win does for Biden is just check off another box on Biden’s Must-Do Checklist:
- A) Top two in Nevada. Check.
- B) Be not awful in the South Carolina debate. Check.
- C) Get the Clyburn endorsement. Check.
- D) Win South Carolina. Looking that way.
- E) Win the most Super Tuesday states. TBD, but D makes that realistic.
- F) Buttigieg and Klobuchar drop out. TBD, but D & E make that likely.
- G) Bloomberg’s national strategy comes up short. (I’m searching for a joke but can’t find it.) ???
- H) Use the clear moderate lane to come back against Sanders and win the nomination. Tough, but not impossible with D-G.
Tomorrow, we keep an eye on D. Then we’ll see what happens.