CHARLESTON, S.C. ― South Carolina’s pivotal primary takes place on Saturday, the last test for Democratic presidential candidates before they fan out across the country as the race enters a new phase in the Super Tuesday contests next week.
Former Vice President Joe Biden always has been expected to do well here, based in large part on his strength with Black voters ― some recent polls have shown him leading the still-crowded field by as much as 20 percentage points. He desperately needs a win to fuel a resurgence that his campaign has dubbed “the Biden bounce back.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), the overall front-runner in the nomination race, appears to have made gains with the state’s Black voters after his blowout win in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. He doesn’t need to win South Carolina as badly as Biden ― a solid second-place finish would suffice. Given that, he has focused on Super Tuesday, in which 14 states ― including California, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina ― hold primaries. With a strong showing, Sanders could take a huge step toward building an insurmountable delegate lead.
A wild card in South Carolina is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. A nonfactor in the Democratic battle up to now, he has bet big on the state with millions of dollars in advertising and a message focused on racial justice and climate issues.
Among the other candidates, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota seems to have taken a pass on South Carolina, where the polls show her in low single digits. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who with his late emergence as a candidate decided to ignore the early-voting states, isn’t on the ballot.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have been dutifully trudging about the state, hoping to win at least the 15% support required to pick up at least some delegates.
Here are some things to watch for in the South Carolina primary:
Biden Hopes For A Blowout
The one-time front-runner for his party’s presidential nod doesn’t just need a win in the Palmetto State ― he needs to dominate. A blowout victory would provide a boost of momentum in the key Super Tuesday states, like California, where his cash-strapped campaign simply hasn’t had the resources to effectively compete. A clean delegate sweep, if he can manage it, would be even sweeter.
“You catapult us forward,” Biden told supporters on the trail in South Carolina this week, adding that the state would be a launching pad for his campaign across the country.
Biden got a huge boost this week when Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, endorsed him. Biden’s advisers are banking on Clyburn’s influence to solidify the campaign’s support among Black voters, who make up roughly two-thirds of registered Democrats in South Carolina.
“I’m going to support him until there’s no need to support him anymore. I think he’s going to win,” Steve Williams, a member of the local branch of the NAACP, said outside a Biden event in Georgetown, South Carolina on Wednesday.
Biden’s camp hopes Williams is echoing the attitudes of tens of thousands of others,
Sanders Looks To Keep His Momentum
While Biden is banking on South Carolina to prove to the nation that his candidacy remains viable, Sanders has something else to prove ― that he is able to organize in a state that soundly rejected him four years ago.
As part of his effort to erase the memory of what was almost a 50-percentage-point loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic race, his campaign has focused on grassroots organizing. Sanders’ first TV ad aired just 10 days before the primary, and he ranks close to the bottom in advertising spending in the state.
The polls have been murky in the final days before the primary ― all have shown Biden in the lead, but by widely varying margins. One constant ― Sanders was the only other candidate polling above the 15% threshold for claiming some delegates.
Sanders’ deputy campaign manager, Ari Rabin-Havt, expressed confidence to HuffPost that the candidate would surpass the 15% mark and then go on to dominate on Super Tuesday.
It’s clear Sanders already has eyes on the road ahead. He spent the day of the Nevada caucuses rallying in Texas, split this past week between North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, and plans to spend this Saturday night back in Virginia for two rallies.
Black Voter Turnout Critical
Black voters accounted for more than 60% of the turnout in the 2016 Democratic primary, and their overwhelming support for Clinton led to her rout of Sanders. He was very much an unknown to the Black community in that race, this time around Sanders has made inroads with it, especially among younger ones. His proposals to forgive student loan debt and offer free health care have resonated in communities of color across the country. In Nevada, he dominated due in large part to his appeal with Latinos, an important trend as he looks ahead to more diverse contests on Super Tuesday.
“We have come a long, long way” in South Carolina, Sanders told a huge crowd in North Charleston earlier this week.
And even as Biden commands the lion’s share of support among the state’s Black voters, the number of them heading to the polls may be lower than in previous primaries. That would likely diminish the size ― and potentially the significance ― of a win by him.
“I think it will probably be closer to 55% Black [turnout], not 65%,” Dick Harpootlian, a state representative and former South Carolina Democratic Party chair who supports Biden, told Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby.
Steyer Plots Surprise Finish
With his surprise entry into the Democratic race, Steyer adopted the unorthodox strategy of making South Carolina his first focus. His campaign had the airwaves to itself for months here, spending millions of dollars on ads. It’s been hard to miss his likeness beamed over TV sets in bars and restaurants. Voters have noticed him, even if some still don’t know much about him.
“His commercials are really good,” one undecided Black voter said at a Biden rally earlier this week.
The upshot is that Steyer could stand in the way of Biden getting a blowout win.
The former hedge fund manager held a meet-and-greet at a small Baptist church in Georgetown on Wednesday. Hand fans with Steyer’s face emblazoned on them were spread out on a table for attendees, as well as T-shirts that said “Invest in HBCUs” (historically black colleges and universities). An introductory speaker warmed up the crowd by leading a chant that will sound awfully familiar to Obama supporters: “Steyered up!” the speaker shouted. “Ready to go!” the crowd shouted back.
For all his effort, a failure by Steyer to hit the 15% threshold would be a severe setback.
Republican activists have attempted to sow discord in the Democratic presidential race by urging GOP voters in South Carolina to cast their ballot for Sanders in Saturday’s open primary. The effort is meant to boost the candidate many in the GOP view as the easiest rival for President Donald Trump in November because of the senator’s self-described “democratic socialist” label and his proposals like “Medicare for All.”
In another sign of GOP meddling ― a push that has been dubbed Operation Chaos ― a pro-Trump super PAC aired an ad in the state this week attacking Biden by using misleading audio from his former boss, Barack Obama. The former president remains widely admired by most Black voters, and the ad was a clear attempt to undermine Biden’s standing among them. A lawyer for Obama formally called on TV stations to stop airing the spot.
It’s unclear whether these efforts will have a substantial effect on Saturday’s primary. Trump himself held a campaign event in North Charleston on Friday night, rallying his supporters on the eve of the primary, as he has done prior to the previous nomination contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.