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The Trailer: What we learned from the South Carolina primary

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In this edition: The South Carolina rundown, what the campaign looks like in Super Tuesday states, and how early voting could change the primary.

The record is safe: No one who's danced onstage with Juvenile has ever won a presidential primary. This is The Trailer.

Joe Biden led in every poll of South Carolina's primary. He led by wide margins with black voters, who, for the third consecutive cycle, made up the majority of South Carolina's Democratic electorate. By Saturday morning, Biden's rivals were resorting to euphemisms — they'd “do well,” or they'd “made inroads” — to spin a likely Biden win.

But Biden did not just win. The former vice president routed the six other Democrats competing in South Carolina, several of whom had outspent him, one who was so humiliated that he quit the race. He crushed the ambitions of Sen. Bernie Sanders's supporters, who had briefly (and unrealistically) hoped that a Biden meltdown would end his campaign and turn Sanders into the undisputed front-runner. Instead, Biden used the first primary victory speech of his career, after a 29-point landslide, to argue that he could win the election and any other Democrat would lose it.

“We have the option of winning big or losing big,” Biden said in Columbia. “That’s the choice.”

On the ground, it was clear that Biden would win the state, though it was unclear that he would win so decisively. Only he and Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor who quit the race, were drawing racially diverse crowds. At final rallies for Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, black representation was nearly nonexistent. (It was only a little better for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.) Sanders's final gathering at a Columbia park did not come close to filling its fenced-off borders, and his black surrogates were already sounding nervous that Rep. James E. Clyburn's endorsement of Biden had locked up the race.

“Listen to me, black people in South Carolina: I don't give a damn what your leaders who were radical 55 years ago have done, if they're not doing it today,” said rapper “Killer” Mike Render, looking out at a crowd that was at best 10 percent black. “Don't wait and hold on! If it rhymes with ‘slow,’ don't vote for it!”  

But the vast majority of black voters did vote for Biden, as did a plurality of white voters. Just hours before Super Tuesday, Biden had shaken off the aura of a loser, helped by the irrational exuberance of Sanders supporters — and by the Defcon 1 panic of Sanders opponents in the media. Here's how it shook out yesterday.

Biden beat the polls with black voters. One of the big questions of this primary was whether Biden could be competitive without the sort of overwhelming black support Hillary Clinton got in 2016. Polling always found Biden ahead with black voters, but not by Clinton's margins, which helped her build a delegate lead that Sanders was never able to overcome. 

What was forgotten by some analysts was that polling underestimated Clinton's black support, and it did so again for Biden. A buzzy NBC News-Marist poll taken after the Nevada caucuses found Biden polling at just 35 percent with black voters, 15 points ahead of Sanders. Those numbers did not survive a reality test. Exit polling put Biden at 61 percent with black voters to 17 percent for Sanders.

Biden pulled that off with a less robust campaign than Clinton's, as even Clyburn suggested as the race was ending. Steyer alone had the time and money to spend winning black voters, and he did well, without breaking away. He cleared 20 percent of the vote in most majority-black counties but never enough to threaten Biden. 

Both Steyer and Sanders underperformed their polling with black voters; if Clyburn wasn't the only reason for that, it's a bad omen for Sanders in upcoming states. Clinton's landslides in majority-black primaries helped her built a substantial lead in the popular vote and delegate count, and Sanders's hope of building a clear plurality in those counts will suffer substantially if Biden gets more South Carolina-sized numbers.

Sanders hasn't solved his black voter problem. After losing the 2016 primary in South Carolina, the Sanders campaign's African American outreach team put together a memo about what it would take to recover. “The margin by which we lost the African American vote has got to be — at the very least — cut in half or there simply is no path to victory,” they wrote.

Sanders did not have the time to do that four years ago. He had plenty of time to try in this campaign. Since 2018, when Sanders held a pre-midterm rally in Columbia that local Democratic candidates mostly avoided, he made 20 trips to the state and held at least 60 campaign events. He unveiled a generous, innovative plan for historically black colleges and universities, while his campaign organized heavily on those campuses. He picked up endorsements from black state legislators who wanted nothing to do with him in 2016.

It was everything the campaign regretted not doing in that first campaign, but it did not double Sanders's support with black voters. Not even close. According to the 2016 exit poll, Sanders won 14 percent of South Carolina's black voters; he appears to have won 17 percent of them this year. That's not wildly out of line with what happened in Nevada, where Sanders's black support inched up from 22 percent in 2016 to 26 percent this year.

In the state's majority-black counties, Sanders often ran behind Steyer. In 2016, Sanders had won just 8.4 percent of the vote in Allendale County, the most Democratic and heavily African American part of the state. Yesterday, he pushed his support up to 12.6 percent. 

Sanders remains powerfully positioned for Tuesday's votes, with Biden barely even competitive for delegates in delegate-rich states such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota. But he has not dramatically changed the electorate in any states so far.

Suburban voters are still flummoxed, and that helped Biden. Forget about “operation chaos,” the buzzy but insubstantial Republican effort to get conservatives voting for the weakest-looking Democratic candidate. The biggest turnout surge yesterday came in the 1st Congressional District, where at least 30,000 more voters pulled a Democratic ballot than had done so in 2016.

Many of those voters rejected both Biden and Sanders. In Charleston and Beaufort counties, where most of the new votes came from, Biden and Sanders ran behind their statewide numbers. But Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar split the rest of the vote, giving none of them a real advantage; in Charleston, for example, they got 27 percent of the combined vote, with none of them cracking 15 percent. There is a substantial bloc of white, liberal suburbanites who are seeking a fresh alternative to Biden or Sanders, and they simply can't make a decision. But they are voting, and often in greater numbers than the voters Sanders is bringing to the polls.

If there was a winner in this bracket yesterday, it was arguably Warren. Exit polling found her running far stronger with voters who made up their minds “in the last few days,” getting 11 percent of those voters while getting just four percent of early deciders. 

Warren also came out of the race with the highest favorable ratings of any surviving candidate except for Biden: a 12-point net favorability rating, to eight points for Sanders and seven points for Buttigieg. (Klobuchar was slightly underwater, with a six-point negative favorability rating.) And Buttigieg's investments in the state never expanded his support beyond white liberals. It's worth looking at Allendale again, a place where Buttigieg made a splashy visit in early December.

“I know that as somebody who’s new on the scene, I’ve got to earn that trust,” he said during a visit to the Democratic Party's headquarters there.

Around 30 people showed up for that Buttigieg meeting. On Tuesday, Buttigieg won just nine votes in all of Allendale County.

The delegate math is already narrowing the race. Four years ago, Clinton won South Carolina's two-way primary by 47 points. Yesterday, Biden won by 29 points. But Biden will walk away with a delegate advantage over Sanders nearly identical to Clinton's — a lead of 39 to 15 delegates, compared with Clinton's 39-to-14 lead.

Why? Delegates get divvied between candidates who get more than 15 percent of the vote. Look at the 1st Congressional District, where 98,504 votes were cast. A whopping 34,434 votes were cast for candidates who did not hit the 15 percent threshold, so those votes were scratched off the delegate calculator. Biden won 46 percent of the total vote in that district and will walk away with four of the six available delegates; Sanders got 19 percent of the vote and will take the two remaining delegates.

In South Carolina, the party's delegate rules were immensely helpful to Biden. In some Super Tuesday states, if current polling bears out, those rules could help Sanders — his campaign is giddy at the possibility of moderates cannibalizing the vote in California, giving him the chance of more and more delegate shutouts across the state. But that was before Biden ran 15 points ahead of the polls Saturday. 

Reading list

“Eighteen days that resuscitated Joe Biden’s nearly five-decade career,” by Matt Viser and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Inside the South Carolina comeback.

“How Joe Biden won South Carolina and how his 2020 rivals made him fight for it,” by Jamie Lovegrove

The view from Columbia.

“ ‘THE. Nina. Turner.’ Bernie Sanders’s most visible and passionate surrogate is helping him connect with black voters,” by Jenna Johnson

How a former state senator became a democratic socialist star.

“Maybe don’t bet heavily on Trump winning most Jewish votes in 2020,” by Philip Bump

The math behind Sanders's support from people who share his faith.

“Michael Bloomberg’s North Carolina game is seriously unlike anything else,” by Ben Jacobs

How a ground game gets paid for.

"Turnout in South Carolina makes Biden’s win even more impressive," by Ted Mellnik, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Adrian Blanco

Comparing the 2016 and 2020 votes.

On the trail

LITTLE ROCK — The barbecue truck pulled up to the parking lot Saturday morning, stopping between Mike Bloomberg lawn signs, a hip-hop radio station’s speakers, and more Mike Bloomberg lawn signs. Bloomberg team members waved more signs on the side of the road, coaxing voters in to cast early votes, and enjoy free food on their way out.

“He sounds good to me,” said Jasper Goodwin, 50, who'd voted for the former New York mayor then gotten in line for the truck. “I looked at a few other candidates, but I can't remember their names right now. I just like the way Mike talks.”

For months, since starting his campaign in Arkansas, Bloomberg had this state all to himself. The only ads on television were for Bloomberg. The only direct mail, which warned that Trump was “bad for Arkansas,” was for Bloomberg. The only campaign offices were set up by Bloomberg, who visited the state three times in three months.

Bloomberg's rivals, who have been running for president much longer than he has, are now playing catch-up in the majority of America that casts primary votes in March or April. Arkansas, with 31 delegates to offer, had been one of the loneliest states. Voters will finish up Tuesday having never seen Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg or Tulsi Gabbard in person; they got their first glimpses of Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren last week.

“People definitely notice when the candidates come through, because Arkansas so often gets overlooked,” said Andrew Collins, a state legislator who stopped by Warren’s riverfront rally but was remaining neutral. “What they see on TV is more relevant to them than what’s happening in some distant state.”

Fourteen states will hold primaries Tuesday, and Bloomberg had a comfortable head start in most of them. His advantage is palpable here, in a contest that other candidates hastily organized for after the voting in Iowa was over. The six other Democrats left in this race have skeleton staffs working from volunteers' houses or, in the case of Sen. Bernie Sanders's campaign, a community organizing center with a wonky door.

“It's a distributed effort with many little pockets of leadership,” said Ian Bitts, 31, a software developer who was leading canvass launches from the Sanders office Saturday. Sanders organizers had first met at Game Goblins, a board game shop, before upgrading to a space where they could store campaign material.

Bloomberg's office a few blocks down Main Street could store a whole lot more. The Little Rock space, one of three in the state (there are also three canvass staging locations), took up two stories of a downtown building. On Saturday, eight paid workers sat at a table in one room, making get-out-the-vote calls, as others came back or left for their canvasses.

“I was thrilled and excited at the opportunity to come along and organize again in the state on a meaningful level,” said Evan Tanner, the campaign's state director. “It's different than just sticking a person in the state. Yeah, the other campaigns were a little bit quiet; we just used that as an opportunity to go and have even more conversations with voters.”

Bloomberg built a campaign here based on something that had worked — the insurgent mayoral bid of Frank Scott, the first African American elected to a full term. Scott joined Bloomberg for lunch when the candidate filed his candidacy (Arkansas has the nation's earliest filing deadline) but did not initially plan to endorse him. But Sen. Kamala D. Harris dropped out, and then Sen. Cory Booker dropped out, and Bloomberg kept coming to Arkansas.

“From that point in time, I was really looking at who could serve as a uniter for our nation and build economic opportunity,” Scott said in an interview. “After really looking at everyone, I thought, look, we've got some really good candidates, but no one's perfect. And the person that best fit my standard of uniting our nation and building and strengthening our economy was Mike.”

Bloomberg collected endorsements across the state, while other candidates kept Arkansas low on their priority list. Warren's visit drew out around 1,000 voters, and Warren had put staff in Arkansas weeks earlier, but her voters had not heard much from the campaign before Saturday.

“She may be the best president that we've had in a very long time,” said Jeanne Miller, 69, who had already voted early for Warren. “I have to have hope. In the primary, you vote with your heart, and this is where my heart is. But you know, I was surprised when I went to our polling place yesterday, and I saw Bloomberg signs.”

“I have 10 Bloomberg envelopes sitting in my mailbox!” chimed in Claude Pollard, 68. “I thought about renting a storage shed for all of them.”

Other candidates were playing catch-up from even further behind. The Buttigieg campaign, which had dispatched Chasten, the former mayor's husband, to the state, was relying entirely on volunteers, who launched canvasses from supporters' homes. There were eight such launches over the weekend across the state. Klobuchar's campaign had flown in the candidate for a Little Rock area rally and plans to bring her back to the northwest part of the state Tuesday morning.

But none of those campaigns had shown much strength with black voters, and all were tested further after Biden's South Carolina win. On Sunday, former senator Blanche Lincoln, who had introduced Klobuchar at the Little Rock rally, endorsed Joe Biden. She accompanied the former vice president's wife, Jill, to church in North Little Rock, where the legislators accompanying them predicted that the news from South Carolina would roll over whatever Bloomberg had built.

“It's called Joementum,” said Fred Love, the state House minority leader. “You know, President Obama trusted Joe twice, and made him his partner in Washington. And I think that's what people are going to begin to think about. Once things start settling, you'll see that Joe Biden will overwhelmingly take more delegates.”

Scott, in an interview, said that Biden would probably get “a little bit of momentum” from the primary win but that Bloomberg still had the state's dominant infrastructure. “When I'm with a candidate, I'm with them,” he said. “I don't flip-flop.”

Some voters had never been with Bloomberg to begin with. Jill Biden spoke at the church service for 14 minutes, sharing the emotional story of Beau Biden's death and how it tested her faith, and describing how the Trump administration was trying to reverse what “President Obama and my husband worked so hard to change.” When the nearly two-hour service was over, she stayed to take photos, and there were plenty of takers.

“It's a future first lady!” said Valerie Boykin, 40, gathering family members together for a picture. “I feel like we're going through the same excitement we had when Obama ran. I tune that other stuff out. I'm an Obama girl. I gotta ride with the home team.” 

Turnout watch

Thanks to rules changes won by Sanders, Democrats have, for the first time, collected the popular vote total from all four of the first primary states. (In the past, there was no popular vote count for Iowa or Nevada.) According to the state parties and the Associated Press, 1,105,585 total votes have been cast. 

After his landslide in South Carolina, Joe Biden now leads the popular count, with 325,298 votes, or 29 percent of the total. Bernie Sanders trails with 24 percent, followed by Pete Buttigieg with 15 percent, followed by Elizabeth Warren with 10 percent. Amy Klobuchar is at 10 percent, too, just 2,739 votes behind Warren. That's entirely due to her third-place finish in New Hampshire, the high point of her campaign so far.

Does it matter? Not yet. There are 53 state and territorial primaries still waiting on their turn to vote. But in the days before the South Carolina primary, Sanders emphasized that he had won the popular vote in the first three contests, and Sanders allies began to warn that if moderates stayed divided, they might be in the position this summer of asking superdelegates to overturn the delegate count and the popular vote.

Sanders has collected 39 percent of the pledged delegates picked in primaries, to 35 percent for Biden and 17 percent for Buttigieg. By this point in 2016, Sanders had won 40 percent of the available delegates. The division of the field has given him an opening; he has not yet added to his 2016 support, with the new voters joining his coalition so far outnumbered by 2016 voters who've left it. 

His strategy for Super Tuesday is to maximize his delegate and vote count, building a lead so large that it could be reversed only at the convention. The nearest comparison is still 2016, when Hillary Clinton left a Southern-heavy Super Tuesday with a 202-delegate lead over Sanders, a lead she would never give up. 

The primacy of California, a state where Sanders has organized for months, makes it likely that he will regain a popular vote lead Tuesday. But it's worth watching these numbers, as the idea of a truly insurmountable Sanders lead got less realistic after South Carolina.

Poll watch

North Carolina primary (NBC/Marist, 568 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 26%
Joe Biden: 24%
Mike Bloomberg: 15%
Elizabeth Warren: 11%
Pete Buttigieg: 7%
Amy Klobuchar: 5%
Tulsi Gabbard: 1%

The other Carolina, the one with a theory of barbecue that can be charitably called “eccentric,” is shaping up as one of Super Tuesday's closest contests. This poll, naturally, was conducted before the South Carolina results; a boost of really any size for Biden could push him over the top, and perhaps push Bloomberg out of contention for most of the state's delegates. Buried in the poll, there's good news for the national Democratic Party, as former state senator Cal Cunningham has built a 33-point lead over left-wing state Sen. Erica Smith, far above the 30 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. A clear win for Cunningham would mean that a Republican effort to boost Smith wasted millions of dollars.

Texas primary (NBC/Marist, 556 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 34%
Joe Biden: 19%
Mike Bloomberg: 15%
Elizabeth Warren: 10%
Pete Buttigieg: 8%
Amy Klobuchar: 3%
Tulsi Gabbard: 1%

No other poll has found Sanders this far ahead in Texas — see below. This finds just 13 percent of voters open to switching their vote, and many of them can't, with more than 1 million Democrats voting early. A result like this would give Sanders a clear delegate win, but the distribution in the suburbs could be affected by the moderate split.

Texas primary (CBS News, 635 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 30%
Joe Biden: 26%
Elizabeth Warren: 17%
Mike Bloomberg: 13%
Pete Buttigieg: 6%
Amy Klobuchar: 6%

Most Texas polling has looked more like this, with a real competition for the win and viability for Warren, who has repeatedly come to the state to campaign. (She never lets a rally go without mentioning that she went to the University of Houston for her first degree.) And voters are incredibly split on what they think the safe choice is. By a 24-point margin, Latino voters think that Sanders has the best chance of winning the general election; by a 25-point margin, black voters think that Biden has the best chance.

California primary (CBS News, 1,411 likely voters

Bernie Sanders: 31%
Joe Biden: 19%
Elizabeth Warren: 18%
Mike Bloomberg: 12%
Pete Buttigieg: 9%
Amy Klobuchar: 4%

The Sanders dream in California was not just to win, but to win so decisively that nearly all the state's 415 pledged delegates would go his way as the large field split the rest of the vote. This poll finds that to be less likely: Biden and Warren would both be in a position to win delegates, giving Sanders a big plurality, but not of the size that could end the race. Forty-two percent of voters told the pollster that they probably would have sent in their ballots by the time South Carolina’s primary was held. And by a 3-to-1 margin, voters said the party’s nominee should “motivate Democrats who stayed home in 2016,” not try to win Trump voters. 

Money watch

Two candidates in very different positions released their February fundraising totals Sunday: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Sanders raised $46.5 million, according to his campaign, pushing past the $42 million he raised in the same month four years ago. Warren raised $29 million, after what her campaign admitted was a sluggish start. One-tenth of it, according to campaign manager Roger Lau, came during Warren's dominating debate performance in Nevada.

Joe Biden said in Sunday interviews that his campaign raised close to $18 million in February. A large chunk of it came in the final few hours of the month: The campaign announced Sunday that it had raised $5 million since the South Carolina primary.

Candidate tracker

The South Carolina primary was the end of the trail for Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who announced in January 2019 that he would not run for president, before changing his mind. The result was a debacle with few precedents in the history of presidential primaries. 

“Honestly, I can't see a path where I can win the presidency,” Steyer said Saturday night, after placing third in the primary he'd invested the most time and energy to win.

Steyer spent at least $267 million of his personal wealth to put a campaign together and to dominate ad spending in early states. In South Carolina alone, Steyer spent more than $20 million on television and print advertising, at least 10 times what Pete Buttigieg, the second-highest spender, put in.

Neither got a single delegate, but no candidate had ever spent as much as Steyer on the way to that no-prize. Across every primary state, he spent an average of $3,383 for each vote he won, a number that will be adjusted upward once we know about his last-minute buys. 

Steyer had the money to try anything, and he did: free food, dance parties with famous pop stars, and a deluge of advertising. Starting last summer, Democratic voters' mailboxes were stuffed with glossy Steyer ads that advertised his support for congressional term limits, an issue few in the party cared about. Earlier this year, Steyer's pitch shifted, to an argument that he would “kick Trump's ass on the economy.” (He pointedly, repeatedly used that three-letter word.) 

In the final days before yesterday's primary, Steyer's messaging had shifted to warning that “Bernie's socialist plans won't beat Trump” and that Joe Biden would not be able to run as a change candidate. The switch from selling Steyer as a disruptive anti-Trump to spending against the two strongest-looking candidates got Steyer nothing: The campaign that invested the most money in early states ended with a middle-aged man dancing to “Back That Thang Up” before winning 11.3 percent of the South Carolina vote.

The remaining seven candidates will spend the next 48 hours on a sprint through Super Tuesday states, with three of them ending that election night in Michigan, which holds a March 10 primary.

Joe Biden. He'll rally in Dallas and Houston before a Super Tuesday event schedule in California.

Bernie Sanders. He'll rally in Los Angeles tonight with members of Public Enemy and finish his Super Tuesday campaigning with a Monday night rally in Minneapolis. He'll spend election night in Burlington, Vt.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll hold a rally in East Los Angeles on Monday night and spend Tuesday night in Detroit.

Pete Buttigieg. He is scheduled to hold fundraisers in Austin and San Diego on Monday, bracketing town halls in San Diego and Oklahoma City, then spend election night in the Detroit suburbs.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll hold a rally in the Twin Cities tonight; on Monday, she'll hold rallies in Salt Lake City, Denver and Tulsa; on Tuesday she'll hold a morning event in Fayetteville, Ark., then an afternoon event in St. Louis, ahead of Missouri's March 10 primary.

Mike Bloomberg. He'll be the only candidate personally attending the AIPAC conference Monday and will participate in a Fox News town hall in Virginia that night. On Tuesday, he'll rally in south Florida, a March 17 primary state with a great deal of early voting.

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a Monday night town hall in Austin, then spend Super Tuesday in Detroit.

What I’m watching

Early voters. Every four years, more and more voters cast early ballots ahead of key primaries. In Nevada that hurt Elizabeth Warren and helped Joe Biden; the senator from Massachusetts did very well with Nevadans who voted after the Las Vegas, but three-quarters of voters had already cast their ballots.

Over the next day, as candidates crisscross Super Tuesday states, millions of voters will have already finished the election. In Texas, 1,000,231 Democrats voted early — 70 percent of the total vote in the 2016 primary. In California, as of Sunday morning, 1,410,945 Democrats had already returned their ballots, a much smaller share of the expected total vote; nearly 6 million requested ballots that had yet to be returned. Tens of thousands of Democrats have voted in Minnesota, and hundreds of thousands have done so in North Carolina.

All of that played out before South Carolina's primary, which for many voters will be the first time since the early vote began that Joe Biden looked like he had a decent shot at the Democratic nomination.

Wait, what?

One reason the South Carolina primary surprised some observers was that polling underrated Joe Biden’s support and overestimated support for Bernie Sanders. One buzzy poll, in particular, ended the night with explaining to do. 

Change Research, which partnered with Charleston’s Post and Courier throughout the primary, found Sanders catching up to Biden in December, trailing him by single digits. It found a dogfight through the rest of the primary, with Biden just four points ahead of Sanders in a poll released after last Tuesday’s debate.

Biden won by substantially more than that. What happened?

“There was a shift in the last few days before the election, and we saw that a little bit,” said Mike Greenfield, the chief executive and co-founder of Change Research. “Our last survey was mostly before the debate and a little bit after the debate. Based on polling we’re doing elsewhere, our guess is that Biden gained at least 10 points from Wednesday to Saturday. He picked up three or four points from every single other candidate, which is the difference between being in a close race the week before the election.”

Asked what went wrong, Greenfield said that the polling model missed some factors in the eventual vote but that the vice president really did enjoy a surge that pollsters missed out on.

“The electorate was a little bit older than we expected, and there weren’t quite as many new voters as we expected. That was a small part of it,” he said. “We may make assumptions about a slightly older electorate in Super Tuesday states than we would have otherwise. We were pretty close in Iowa, and we were spot on in New Hampshire. South Carolina was a different beast.” 


… two days until Super Tuesday
… nine days until Super Tuesday II
… 14 days until the 11th Democratic debate
… 16 days until Super Tuesday III