Joe Biden, who ditched New Hampshire on primary night to start his campaign here, says he will “win South Carolina.” So does Tom Steyer. But Sen. Bernie Sanders has set the bar at “doing very well.” Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg talks about “broadening” his support. And Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar don't really get asked if they can win here, at all.
The reason is obvious, and obviously uncomfortable for the lagging candidates to talk about. South Carolina is the first primary state where nonwhite voters will probably make up a majority, and only a few candidates have been winning those voters. The race here is viewed as a test of whether Biden can win black voters by the kind of margins that would resuscitate his candidacy, because if he can't, a narrowing path to the nomination will be closed off completely.
South Carolina is a perfect test for Biden, not just because it's early, but because as white conservatives have exited the local Democratic Party, black voters have played a stronger and stronger role in the primary. When John Edwards won the 2004 primary, black voters made up 47 percent of the electorate. Four years later, when Barack Obama crushed Edwards and Hillary Clinton here, 55 percent of voters were black. And by 2016, when Clinton's landslide began her series of routs in Southern primaries, 61 percent of South Carolina primary voters were black.
Clinton won those voters by 71 points, burying Bernie Sanders in every one of the state's 46 counties. The senator from Vermont ran strongest in Pickens County, where only one in 10 voters was black and where antipathy to Clinton ran high. But in some majority-black counties and precincts, he struggled to break 10 percent of the vote.
Voters there knew Clinton, and trusted her: It was the first primary state where more voters considered Clinton more “honest and trustworthy” than Sanders, according to the exit poll. Attempts to peel votes away by attacking her decades-old comments about crime and “super-predators” worked with some younger black voters but fell flat with everyone else.
Biden is popular with black voters but has never hit Clinton-level heights. He has also sometimes trailed with white voters here, while Clinton won them. Sanders, who saw his southern defeats as reasons he could never catch Hillary Clinton in 2016, has opened nine campaign offices in the state, three more than Biden. And Steyer has spent more than $20 million introducing himself to voters, with no real pushback apart from the few minutes Biden spent onstage attacking him as a “Tommy come lately” on private prisons (which he invested in and then denounced).
But Democratic primary has perpetually flummoxed pollsters, with all the errors going in one direction — undercounting black support. In 2008, the final South Carolina polls put Obama up by an average of 12 points. He won by 29 points. Four years later, the delta was even bigger, with Clinton polling ahead of Sanders by 28 points before beating him by 48 points.
Biden could win by a bigger margin than expected. But any win narrower than Clinton's, with Sanders and perhaps others crossing the 15 percent threshold, would mean fewer delegates. This is the first primary state on the calendar with a congressional map drawn by Republicans, which makes the delegate math trickier. The state's most populous county, Greenville, votes strongly Republican and is contained in one district; the second- and third-most-populous counties, Richland and Charleston, vote for Democrats and are chopped into multiple districts.
The 1st Congressional District runs along the Atlantic coastline and was drawn nine years ago to elect a Republican — rising party star and now-Sen. Tim Scott. But this Charleston-centered district is the most highly educated in the state, with 41 percent of all residents holding college degrees. In 2018, after a conservative state legislator ousted Rep. Mark Sanford, Democrat Joe Cunningham flipped the seat, a fluke-y-looking result that wouldn't have been possible without the district's white moderates moving away from Trump.
Those voters have been in heavy demand all year, with the candidates who have not broken through with black voters spending plenty of time in Charleston. (Klobuchar spent Wednesday afternoon there, probably her final event in the state before Saturday's vote.) But only Sanders has opened up an office outside that city, in Beaufort, one of the more conservative towns down the coast with a booming, working-class Latino population. Cunningham, meanwhile, has repeatedly denounced Sanders as a threat to the party down ticket, warning that socialism can't win in South Carolina.
2016 result: Clinton 66%, Sanders 34%
The 2nd Congressional District is a classic gerrymander, grabbing much of Columbia and attaching it to the more conservative mid-state counties and towns close to Georgia. Sanders has opened an office in Aiken, and he ran far ahead of his statewide margin four years ago in Lexington, part of the Columbia area that casts around one-quarter of the primary vote. If any of Biden's challengers for the suburban vote have a pulse, it will show up here.
2016 result: Clinton 69%, Sanders 31%
The 3rd Congressional District is the whitest and most strongly Republican part of the conservative upstate; it was held by conservative Democrats until 1994, when a 39-year-old attorney named Lindsey Graham flipped it. Four years ago, just 34,939 ballots were cast in the Democratic primary, the lowest total in the state; 118,687 votes were cast for Republicans.
No Democrat has even bothered opening an office here, and few candidates have bothered to visit it, with just three delegates at stake. Joe Biden's stops in Greenwood and Abbeville, three months ago, represent the totality of in-person campaigning. Something to watch: whether Steyer, the only candidate many voters here have heard from in their mailboxes or on TV, can translate that into a delegate.
2016 result: Clinton 71%, Sanders 29%
The 4th Congressional District is the state's smallest, wealthiest and most compact, and one of its most conservative. The vast majority of Democratic votes come from Greenville, Spartanburg and their suburbs, but these aren't the sort of suburbs that are racing to the left as a reaction to the Trump presidency. Every leading campaign has some presence in Greenville, and the local Republican Party has urged its voters to back Sanders, on the theory that he'd be the least- electable Democratic nominee.
Steyer has actually led the field in campaign stops here, making seven visits to either Greenville or Spartanburg. But Biden added a Spartanburg stop to today's itinerary for a reason, and Democrats are not, right now, very nervous about the Republican crossover vote.
2016 result: Clinton 66%, Sanders 34%
The 5th Congressional District has seen more Democratic campaign advertising than any part of the state, for a simple reason: Its biggest city, Rock Hill, is in the Charlotte media market. It also has a sizable black electorate, large enough that Democrats targeted the district in a near miss 2017 special election. Warren and Buttigieg have made stops in Rock Hill, correctly seeing it as the best chance to pick up some suburban voters, but reporters took note that both of them drew overwhelmingly white crowds.
Outside Rock Hill, campaigning has been scarce; Steyer alone has made stops in Chester and Fairfield counties, where rural black voters make up most of the Democratic electorate. On Friday, both Buttigieg and Biden will campaign in Sumter, the district's black population center.
2016 result: Clinton 76%, Sanders 24%
The 6th Congressional District, represented by Rep. James E. Clyburn, was drawn to pack most of South Carolina's black voter strongholds into as small an area as possible. It reels in the most heavily African American parts of Columbia and Charleston and, in between, covers most of the state's blackest cities and rural areas, from Orangeburg to Bamberg. In national elections, Republicans struggle to crack 30 percent of the vote here.
For that reason, it's the biggest single delegate haul in the state. (Democrats assign delegates to districts based on turnout and partisan loyalty.) Hillary Clinton's 2016 landslide here gave her seven of the eight available delegates, epitomizing Sanders's problem with black voters that year. He has worked for years to correct that problem, organizing at historically black colleges (South Carolina State University is in Orangeburg), winning endorsements from black legislators in the district, and making visit after visit.
Both Sanders and Steyer have stopped in Denmark, a town with a toxic water problem similar to the more famous crisis in Flint, Mich. Steyer, who for some weeks had the state largely to himself, has made more stops here than anyone. But Biden should dominate the district, especially after picking up Clyburn's endorsement.
2016 result: Clinton 83%, Sanders 17%
The 7th Congressional District runs from the Pee Dee region of the state, with plenty of rural black voters, to Myrtle Beach's Horry County, with plenty more conservative transplants from colder states. (Traveling from west to east, Southern accents tend to get replaced by Staten Island accents.) Four years ago, Sanders won about one-third of the vote around Myrtle Beach, but he was decimated in the Pee Dee.
Biden looks intent on repeating Clinton's strategy, as the only candidate with an office in the region, in Florence. Other Democrats have made very few trips here. Biden and Buttigieg are the only candidates still in the race who stopped by the Galivants Ferry stump last year, a major Pee Dee political gathering that most Democrats skipped. Steyer, Biden and Buttigieg have also stopped in Darlington County, and Biden and Steyer made competing stops this week in Georgetown. If Buttigieg's emphasis on his military experience has traction, it would likely be here and in the retiree-heavy 1st.
2016 result: Clinton 76%, Sanders 24%
“Joe Biden meets his make-or-break moment in South Carolina,” by Matt Viser and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr.
A happier pre-primary sprint for the onetime front-runner.
“Democratic leaders willing to risk party damage to stop Bernie Sanders,” by Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein
Conversations with superdelegates, who are not interested in handing the nomination to a candidate who doesn't get a majority of primary votes.
“Trump campaign plans community centers to woo black voters,” by Ashley Parker
“Woke” outreach in big cities.
Joe Biden, or someone else?
“Why fears of a Bernie Sanders nomination obliterating Democrats' control of the House are overblown,” by Grace Panetta and Jake Lahut
The case against the case against Sanders.
On the trail
GEORGETOWN, S.C. — On Wednesday afternoon, as Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” pulled up to a town hall meeting here, another event was getting underway at a nearby church. Sixty or so voters took their seats, standing when former state legislator Gloria Bromell Tinubu led them in a chant.
“When I say ‘Steyered up,’ you say: 'Trump's gotta go!' ” she said. “Steyered up, Trump's gotta go! Steyered up, Trump's gotta go!”
In walked Tom Steyer, the tartan-tied billionaire who has campaigned and spent his way into the double digits in South Carolina — and only South Carolina. He'd been endorsed by Edith S. Childs, the activist who coined “fired up, ready to go” for Barack Obama, which not only inspired the chant but demonstrated that he really had put down roots in the state.
“I've been here more than anybody else,” Steyer said. “South Carolina gets to reset this election. Three percent of the delegates have been chosen. Three! South Carolina is as big as all of the states that have voted so far. And right now, the press would have you believe you have a choice between a socialist who wants the government to take over parts of the economy and a former Republican. I think that's a dramatic mistake.”
Steyer has spent more money in South Carolina than every other Democratic candidate combined. He spent nearly as much in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, for a grand total of zero delegates so far. He has swung from nonstop positivity to running the campaign's first negative contrast ads, one of which warns voters that a self-described “socialist” cannot win the presidency.
Accordingly, other Democrats have adjusted from ignoring Steyer to venting their irritation at what he's doing. “You have Steyer spending millions of dollars out campaigning there,” Biden told CBS News on Sunday, “so I think a lot’s happening in terms of the amount of money being spent by billionaires to try to cut into the African American vote.”
When they met on the debate stage, two days later, Biden attacked Steyer (“my good friend on the end of this platform”) for his investments in private prisons, a topic neither Biden nor any other Democrat had bothered to attack in paid media. The point was not just to attack Steyer, but to portray him as ridiculous; in Georgetown, as Steyer spoke down the street, Biden endorser and state Rep. Carl Anderson told a crowd of around 250 voters that Steyer's room was mostly empty.
“Where are these guys coming from?” Dick Newcomb, 67, said of Steyer, as Biden worked the rope line. “They have no experience and they want to be president because they're rich?”
Steyer's room wasn't empty, though, and there was real support for Steyer in a mostly black city. Sitting near the front row, a trio of women who'd come straight from Bible study, Ash Wednesday crosses still smudged on their foreheads, said they had seen and heard Steyer more than any other candidate and come around to his message.
“When he started that Need to Impeach Trump campaign, I knew he was not afraid of anything,” said Amy McKnight, 85, who had cast an early ballot for Steyer.
“He talks about climate change,” said Idella Bradford, 74, as Pauline Collington, 84, nodded. “We've had so much flooding here. We need to do something.”
Steyer's ads and appearances are substantive and portray him as something new to primary politics: a wealthy man who has opened his wallet for black businesses and social justice causes. Other people in his position, he says, have made inequality worse and deprived black people of rights and economic opportunity. He has personally worked to reverse that, he says, touting how his Beneficial State Bank focused on loans to black workers and businesses.
“When I was in Las Vegas last week, I was talking to a 75-year-old African American pastor who told me that when they built Raider Stadium, because the Raiders have just moved to Las Vegas from Oakland, 1 percent of the contracts were with African American businesses,” Steyer said in Georgetown. “Look, every time you talk about quotas for African Americans, people go crazy. But in fairness, there's a 99 percent quota for the old boy system and no one says a word! The reason we have the bank is to get different people in charge of the businesses.”
The story of Beneficial State Bank is not all highlights; it has sued nearly 2,000 borrowers for falling behind on payments. It's the sort of detail other Democrats might use if Steyer became a threat, but they don't think he is; in South Carolina, reading an article about the bank is likely to prompt one of Steyer's own omnipresent digital ads. Like Mike Bloomberg, Steyer argues that he has acted while Washington fumbled; unlike Bloomberg, nobody's really presenting a case against him.
“People think climate is a science problem, but it's a human problem with a gigantic racial subtext,” Steyer said Wednesday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. “I will stand up for this community because something wrong has happened. It has to be repaired so that we can move forward together in a just society.”
One reason Steyer's rivals ignore this is that they're not sure where he can go next. It took months for him to climb into the position where he might win delegates in South Carolina. That would, under current DNC rules, keep him in the party's televised debates. (The party has not released new rules yet for its March debate in Arizona.)
Even in states with large black electorates, Steyer is polling in the low single digits. But in a short interview after the Georgetown event, Steyer said that a strong performance in South Carolina would lead him to focus on “big states,” racing up the calendar.
“Obviously, I’d have to use the momentum from here,” Steyer said. “It’s a fast turnaround.”
Big Tent Project Fund, “Cost.” While the Democratic Majority For Israel's PAC has stopped attacking Bernie Sanders, this 501(c)(4) has been hitting South Carolina with digital ads, all warning against Sanders. One spot, narrated by a black woman, accuses Sanders of thinking that most drug dealers are black, a topsy-turvy interpretation of his arguments about criminal justice restructuring. This one keeps it simpler, arguing that a socialist candidate would bring about “four more years of Trump.”
South Carolina primary (Monmouth, 454 likely voters)
Joe Biden: 36% (+3)
Bernie Sanders: 16% (+4)
Tom Steyer: 15% (+11)
Elizabeth Warren: 8% (-8)
Pete Buttigieg: 6% (+3)
Amy Klobuchar: 4% (+2)
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% (-)
One of the great accidents of this primary is that Biden's weak performances in the first three states gave him the aura of an underdog heading into South Carolina. He has never been the underdog in South Carolina. In every poll taken since the start of the race, Biden has never lost his lead, has frequently polled in the mid-30s and has never trailed with black voters — here, he gets 45 percent of them. But he had slipped in polls taken after the Iowa and New Hampshire debacles, so the final surveys are correcting the impression that he was going to collapse.
Expectations for both Biden and Sanders may have gotten out of hand, in different ways. The risk for Biden was not really that he would lose this state but that his support with black voters was not enough to lock down more delegate-rich Southern states, as Hillary Clinton did. The optimistic projection for Sanders was not a big majority, but a fluke-y finish with Steyer splitting black votes and getting him narrowly past Biden. A result like this would give Biden a clear majority of delegates, perhaps catching Sanders in the count before Super Tuesday; four years earlier, Hillary Clinton entered Super Tuesday with a clear delegate lead.
Wisconsin primary (Marquette, 464 likely voters)
Bernie Sanders: 29% (+10)
Mike Bloomberg: 17% (+11)
Joe Biden: 15% (-8)
Pete Buttigieg: 13% (-2)
Amy Klobuchar: 11% (+7)
Elizabeth Warren: 9% (-5)
The Badger state is the last part of the upper Midwest to cast its vote, making this poll a glimpse into an uncertain future. The odds of all seven of these candidates enduring into April, when most of the delegates will have been picked, are slim. But the pattern is clear: Since January, Sanders has consolidated more left-wing voters, scared moderates have traded their Biden aviators for Bloomberg terminals, and senator-next-door Klobuchar has benefit from the long look she got after a good debate in New Hampshire.
But this poll has generally made news for its head-to-head tests, Trump versus his Democratic rivals. The good news for Democrats is that Trump remains unpopular; the bad news is that he's got higher favorable ratings than any Democratic candidate. Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg all hold higher unfavorable ratings than the president, while Sanders is the only candidate who edges Trump in a general election.
On the final full day before South Carolina's primary, just four Democrats will still be campaigning around the state; just four will spend part of Election Day here. Just two, Joe Biden and Tom Steyer, will hold election night parties in the state, as clear a sign as anyone can get of what they need here. On Sunday, many of the candidates will meet again in Selma, Ala., with Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg all expected to join a church service; Pete Buttigieg may also attend.
As we head into Super Tuesday, the candidates' own travel matters less than the campaign's investments. Biden is spending money on TV across Southern Super Tuesday states: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. (He's also on the air in Georgia, with a March 24 primary.) Amy Klobuchar has bought time in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Utah. Both Klobuchar and Warren are being helped by new super PACs going live where their campaigns are stretched.
Joe Biden. He'll start Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., then come back to Columbia for an election night party, before Sunday events in Selma, Ala. and Norfolk.
Bernie Sanders. He'll hold Friday night and Saturday morning rallies in Massachusetts before heading west for rallies in California.
Amy Klobuchar. She'll hold a fundraiser in Nashville on Friday and spend Saturday in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
Pete Buttigieg. He'll be in South Carolina on Friday and Nashville and Raleigh on Sunday.
Elizabeth Warren. She'll host a canvass launch in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday morning then start campaigning across Super Tuesday states, with stops in Little Rock and Houston.
Mike Bloomberg. He'll spend Friday in Tennessee, Saturday in Virginia and North Carolina, and Sunday in Alabama.
Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a Friday night town hall in Charleston, then head to California for pre-Super Tuesday events in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
What I’m watching
The Super Tuesday kill shot. All three of the senators still running for president represent states that will vote on Super Tuesday: Amy Klobuchar's Minnesota, Bernie Sanders's Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren's Massachusetts. Only one candidate, Sanders, will campaign in all three states by next week.
On Friday and Saturday, Sanders will hold rallies in Springfield, Mass., and Boston; on Monday, he will close out his Super Tuesday campaigning with his third rally of the cycle in Minnesota. The fact that he'll hit those states has already paid off, with Warren repeatedly being asked whether she must win Massachusetts, a question she didn't get even when polls had shown her trailing there.
“I'm here fighting for every vote,” Warren told CNN's Don Lemon on Wednesday night, not answering the question.
Klobuchar had gotten her own version of the question, telling reporters that polling showed her up by 10 points in Minnesota. She was rounding up; the last reliable poll of the state found Klobuchar up by six over Sanders, while polling has found Sanders and Warren tied in Massachusetts. And the Sanders campaign has tamped down expectations, too, portraying the upcoming visits — covered locally as in-your-face responses to Klobuchar and Warren — as attempts to rack up delegates.
“When you get to Super Tuesday, there's winning states, but there's also accumulating delegates,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in an interview this week, pointing to the relatively large number of delegates available in Massachusetts. “There's no reason that you would not go and compete for delegates in Massachusetts, a state Bernie Sanders almost won last time.”
There is no downside for Sanders in doing this. Narrow or even decisive defeats would get lost in the larger Super Tuesday story. Victories by Sanders would humiliate either candidate, potentially driving them from the race. (Klobuchar's mantra of winning “every race, every place, every time” would be canceled.) And Klobuchar has added Minnesota to her final ad buy, just 15 months after winning her third term by a third landslide.
… two days until the South Carolina primary
… five days until Super Tuesday
… 12 days until Super Tuesday II
… 17 days until the 11th Democratic debate
… 19 days until Super Tuesday III