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Super Tuesday Preview: Biden And Sanders Are Vying For First In North Carolina And Virginia

In the lead-up to Super Tuesday’s delegate-rich array of contests, FiveThirtyEight is digging into our primary forecast to explore what the race looks like in the 14 states and one territory that will cast ballots. Nathaniel Rakich already previewed Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, so I’m looking at what our forecast has to say about North Carolina and Virginia.

Unlike the three New England states, where Sen. Bernie Sanders is favored across the board, these two states are shaping up to be pretty competitive contests. In both states, it seems as if Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden will battle it out for first place.

Sanders’s breadth of support in both states puts him in the best position to maximize his delegate haul, while the math is a little fuzzier for Biden. For one thing, Biden’s fortunes seem to be more inextricably linked to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s performance. But remember, things could still shift in these states depending on how things play out in South Carolina. After all, North Carolina and Virginia are also in the South, so South Carolina’s results could be indicative of voting patterns in many parts of these states. North Carolina and Virginia have fairly analogous outlooks in part because they contain some similar regions, including affluent and highly educated urban-suburban pockets, sizable African American populations and large rural areas.

First up, North Carolina. Our forecast has Biden as a very slight favorite to win the state, with about a 1 in 2 (49 percent) chance, while Sanders has about a 3 in 10 (30 percent) shot at victory. Bloomberg has about a 1 in 5 (19 percent) chance of winning. Other candidates’ overall chances of winning are slight: Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a 1 percent chance and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has less than a 1 percent shot.

Thirty-eight of North Carolina’s 110 pledged delegates will be allocated based on the statewide results. Our model forecasts Biden to get 26 percent and Sanders to get 23 percent of the statewide vote, on average. Bloomberg, however, is a close third at 20 percent. Warren, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are all further back, with projected vote shares of 10 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively. (Philanthropist Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are forecast to win just 4 and 1 percent apiece.)

Our forecast for North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts — which together award 72 delegates — has Biden ahead in eight districts and Sanders up in three, though they’re running neck and neck in about half the districts.1 Remember, candidates must win at least 15 percent of the vote both statewide and in individual districts to win delegates. As things stand now, it looks like only Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg are likely to finish above that mark in most districts, though we can’t count out Warren or Buttigieg.

It’s a three-way race across North Carolina

Average forecasted vote share for the top six Democratic presidential candidates in North Carolina congressional districts, according to the FiveThirtyEight model as of 2:00 p.m. on Feb. 28

District Biden Sanders Bloomberg Warren Buttigieg Klobuchar
NC-01 34% 19% 24% 7% 6% 3%
NC-02 22 24 17 11 11 7
NC-03 28 21 22 8 8 5
NC-04 23 24 18 10 11 7
NC-05 25 25 22 11 8 4
NC-06 28 24 20 10 7 4
NC-07 25 23 21 10 9 5
NC-08 29 23 22 10 7 4
NC-09 25 25 20 11 9 5
NC-10 27 23 22 11 7 4
NC-11 22 25 20 12 9 6
NC-12 30 22 20 9 7 4
NC-13 26 25 22 11 7 4
State 26 23 20 10 8 5

Much of the district-level variation is due in part to the demographic factors we outlined earlier. For instance, Biden tends to have an advantage in districts with large numbers of African American. Two of his three strongest seats are the 1st Congressional District, which is in eastern North Carolina and 43 percent black, and the 12th Congressional District, which is home to Charlotte and 36 percent black. (North Carolina’s population as a whole is about one-fifth African American.)

Sanders tends to do best in whiter areas, but he’s decently strong everywhere regardless of demographic differences. Warren also doesn’t have much variation in her support, though with her relatively high support among college-educated voters, you’d think her best chances lie in the well-educated and university-laden Research Triangle, covered by the 2nd and 4th districts. Buttigieg also does better with college-educated voters, so it’s not surprising that the only districts in which he clears 10 percent are the 2nd and 4th.

On election night, keep an eye on how Biden and Bloomberg are doing relative to each other. Their district-level forecasted vote share is stronger than their statewide vote share in many of the same districts, so if one underperforms, we’d expect the other to overperform in those areas (especially as both candidates’ support tends to come from more moderate voters and African American voters, with some overlap there). That could have ramifications for delegate hauls, too, because should one gain at the other candidate’s expense, the underperformer could fall below 15 percent and out of the running for delegates in those districts.

To the north, Virginia is another highly competitive piece of the Super Tuesday puzzle. Our forecast gives Biden a slight edge in the Old Dominion, with almost a 1 in 2 (47 percent) chance of winning. Meanwhile, Sanders has a roughly 2 in 5 (37 percent) shot and Bloomberg has a 1 in 7 (14 percent) chance. Again, the overall chances someone else wins Virginia outright are low: Both Buttigieg and Warren have about a 1 in 100 (1 percent) shot.

Thirty-four of Virginia’s 99 pledged delegates will be allocated based on the statewide results. Our model forecasts Biden (26 percent) and Sanders (25 percent) to each win about a quarter of the statewide vote, on average. Bloomberg is a close third — he’s projected to receive 19 percent. Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar are farther back at 11 percent, 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively. (Steyer and Gabbard are projected to win 1 percent.)

Meanwhile, our forecast for Virginia’s 11 congressional districts — together worth 65 delegates — suggests that it’s possible that Virginia could have four candidates who meet the 15 percent threshold in at least a district or two, which could muddle the delegate situation. Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg are at or above 15 percent in each of Virginia’s districts, according to our average forecasted vote share, but Buttigieg is around the 15 percent mark in three districts, too.

Four candidates could pick up delegates in Virginia

Average forecasted vote share for the top six Democratic presidential candidates in Virginia congressional districts, according to the FiveThirtyEight model as of 2:00 p.m. on Feb. 28

District Biden Sanders Bloomberg Buttigieg Warren Klobuchar
VA-01 25% 25% 19% 11% 9% 6%
VA-02 28 26 21 9 9 4
VA-03 36 21 23 7 6 3
VA-04 35 21 23 8 7 4
VA-05 29 23 23 9 8 5
VA-06 27 26 23 8 9 4
VA-07 26 26 20 11 9 5
VA-08 21 27 15 14 11 8
VA-09 27 25 24 8 9 4
VA-10 19 28 15 15 11 9
VA-11 20 28 15 14 11 8
State 26 25 19 11 9 6

Notably, Biden’s forecasted vote share varies more across Virginia districts than in North Carolina. His estimates range from 19 percent in the 10th Congressional District, which contains some highly affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., to 36 percent in the 3rd Congressional District, a majority-minority seat centered on Newport News and Norfolk in the southeast. And just as in North Carolina, Biden is strongest in the two seats with large shares of African American voters — the 3rd and 4th districts are more than 40 percent black.

Once again, Bloomberg tends to mirror Biden’s strength in individual districts but with a slightly lower floor. Biden and Bloomberg don’t do as well in the 8th, 10th and 11th districts, which cover most of northern Virginia near the nation’s capital, and this seems to have opened a possible path to delegates for Buttigieg. More than half of these districts’ adult residents hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, and they all have median household incomes north of $100,000, placing them among the 10 richest districts in the country.

However, Sanders is in an enviable position, averaging between 21 and 28 percent everywhere. The breadth of his support across a demographically diverse set of Virginia districts — similar to North Carolina — gives Sanders the best chance of getting at least a slice of the delegate pie across the commonwealth. Warren’s support is fairly consistent across much of Virginia, though her best chance of cracking 15 percent appears to come in the highly-educated and affluent territory in which Buttigieg also looks strong, so that might be a bit of a delegate melee.

As the returns come in, be sure to once again watch Biden and Bloomberg. And keep an eye on the wealthy and highly educated suburbs of Washington, D.C. If Buttigieg, Warren or even Klobuchar hope to outperform their forecasted vote shares statewide and at the district level, that’s where we’d expect to see them make major gains. At the same time, if that trio of candidates fragment the vote in those districts, they could help Sanders — as well as Biden or Bloomberg to some extent — by reducing the number of candidates who win delegates and helping maximize the delegate haul for candidates who do win more than 15 percent.

North Carolina and Virginia have the third- and fourth-most pledged delegates up for grabs on March 3, behind only California and Texas. The race to win overall looks close in each state and a number of candidates potentially could grab at least a few delegates across the states’ 24 districts.

Footnotes

  1. Note that North Carolina’s delegate counts are based on the new district lines for 2020 after the state redrew its congressional map in 2019, as is the demographic data we use in our model.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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