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What’s Going On In South Carolina?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): With just one day before the South Carolina primary on Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden has a 14 in 15 shot at winning the most votes in South Carolina, according to our forecast. He is a heavy favorite and is expected to win 39 percent of the vote, on average.

But a lot of Biden’s gains in South Carolina, both in our forecast and our polling average, have come in the last several days as polls following Nevada and Tuesday night’s debate have started to trickle in. Prior to this week, things had looked pretty close in South Carolina, and the model even had Sanders in the lead there prior to the Nevada caucuses.

So Galen, you’re actually on the ground in South Carolina. What are you seeing and hearing?

galen (Galen Druke, podcast producer and reporter): For now, it looks like Biden has managed to reverse the trends of the past couple weeks of Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer gaining support — in particular black support — here in South Carolina. A Monmouth poll just came out today showing Biden up by 20 points and winning black voters by almost 30 points.

But to give you some on-the-ground color for what it’s like: I spent yesterday morning at the National Action Network’s Ministers’ Breakfast at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, a large black church in North Charleston, and what I observed in both speaking with attendees and observing the crowd’s reaction was that Biden was far and away the favorite of the candidates that spoke.

In the afternoon, I went to a Sanders rally in North Charleston that — while more diverse than his New Hampshire rallies — was still very white for a state where 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is black.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Yeah, Galen, that lines up with some of what I found going through South Carolina polls after my visit to the state a week and a half ago. Sanders has often led Biden among white voters in the polls, but Biden leads among black voters, which is very important. The margins for each candidate could decide whether the race is close or not, though.

While I was there, it seemed like Biden might be in trouble, yet some recent polls show him with a more comfortable lead. That might come from Steyer fading after Nevada, though it’s unclear.

sarahf: Galen is right that that Monmouth poll is a really strong point in Biden’s favor, but I guess I’ve been kind of surprised by how much overall support Biden’s lost since Iowa. Granted, this is from an average of national polls, but the fact that the gap between Biden and Sanders’s support among black Americans has closed so dramatically in recent weeks makes me wonder how overwhelming the support will be for Biden on Saturday.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Voters love a winner! 2016 taught us that. His weaker showings have redounding effects.

sarahf: That’s true, but I have to imagine the storyline to watch on Saturday will be how Biden does with black voters. And I’m curious how this plays out across age, given Biden’s downturn since Iowa (although maybe last-minute surge now). Because one thing that has divided voter choice overall — including black voters — is age.

Do we think we’ll see that kind of age split in South Carolina? Or because it’s a more conservative southern state, maybe not as much as, say, a state like California?

galen: Yeah, Sarah, when it comes to the generational divide, you’re right. In 2016, Sanders pulled even with Clinton among black voters under the age of 30, even though she won almost 80 percent of the black vote overall.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that young people don’t vote at the same rates as older voters, especially in primaries, and that will probably be true here in South Carolina as well.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, Galen. A plus for Biden is that most voters will be older. In South Carolina’s 2016 Democratic primary, 65 percent of voters were 45 years or older, according to the exit poll. So even if Sanders can gin up younger voter turnout some — and it’s unclear whether he’s really been doing that so far — the electorate will likely lean toward older voters.

sarahf: On the point of Biden’s mediocre performances so far, how have folks been grappling with it, Galen? I know Geoffrey heard a lot from folks earlier this month who said what happened in the first two states didn’t matter to them.

galen: I haven’t heard a lot of people express doubt about Biden based on poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. After all, a lot of the support Biden has is based on years of his presence in the state and his association with the country’s first black president. That can’t really be erased in a couple weeks.

Biden has also had a good — or not so bad — week in the news cycle. He came in second in Nevada, he performed fine in the debate, and he got the coveted endorsement of House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Wednesday. By the way, I spoke to Clyburn about why he decided to endorse Biden, and he expressed the same skepticism about Sanders’s candidacy that I’ve heard from other older black voters as well.

How Rep. James Clyburn settled on endorsing Joe Biden for president

clare.malone: Yes, Galen. I wrote about that this fall when I followed Biden around for a couple months, including in South Carolina. There’s a lot of history and effort that black voters feel Biden has put in, and they’re quite attuned to candidates who might be just dropping in and pandering to them.

geoffrey.skelley: Like quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. in your first response to a debate question, Clare?

galen: Clare, I have talked to a number of voters who have complained about pandering. Voters here are VERY attuned to it and it is SO transparent.

Black South Carolinians to candidates: Quit pandering

sarahf: So I think both Clare and Galen are right — despite his national slump among black voters — Biden’s support in South Carolina is pretty sticky. But at the same time … how do you explain Steyer in third in our state average there?!?

Is it noise? Or has Steyer maybe made serious inroads there aside from all the ad buys?

galen: MONEY $$$$$

clare.malone: Steyer’s ads are interesting, since he frames himself not as much as the IMPEACH guy, but as a businessman. That’s more moderate imagery, and the black electorate in the Democratic Party tends to skew moderate. So he’s doing something smart!

But I’m not sure if that’s actually going to translate into like, a third place win. But never say die.

galen: I mean he looks like he’ll come in third, so I take those polls seriously. But I don’t think what happens here for Steyer in South Carolina says much about the rest of the race nationally.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s more than just ad spending, though. I saw Steyer’s organization first-hand, and it seemed pretty impressive. They’ve made huge investments in attracting African American support, not just with typical election pitches but also community engagement. The campaign has held a bunch of block parties, for example. And the campaign seemed to be everywhere. I even talked to one Sanders volunteer at Sanders’s headquarters in Columbia who said he’d knocked on some rural doors, and the only other literature he’d seen at those places was from Steyer’s campaign.

galen: Steyer’s performance in South Carolina, where former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot, could be a little test run for Bloomberg’s approach, though. If Steyer’s support in polls is reflective of his support on Election Day, that could bode decently for Bloomberg. If he underperforms his polls, though that may suggest that support “purchased” through massive ad/campaign spending may not be that sticky.

sarahf: Right, and we saw how well that worked for Steyer in Nevada. He invested heavily and still finished in fifth place.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s worth noting that Steyer got 9 percent of the initial preference vote in Nevada, and he was at 10 percent in our polling average before the caucuses. So I’m not sure that he really underperformed there.

clare.malone: Though I will say, Bloomberg has perhaps purchased his support slightly differently. It’s ads, sure, but he’s also got a massive philanthropic network that local and state officials might have benefitted from and therefore will endorse or campaign for him. That’s probably a little more effective than Steyer’s ad blitz.

galen: Well, Steyer has gotten some notable endorsements in South Carolina, but he’s actually been accused of buying the backing of South Carolinians, which is similar to criticisms that have been lobbed at Bloomberg.

But the big question regarding Steyer in South Carolina, I think, is whether he can really clear the 15 percent threshold to get delegates, cutting into Biden or Sanders’s totals.

sarahf: Editor-in-chief Nate Silver had a piece on Thursday where he gamed out three scenarios for how the South Carolina primary could go: 1) Large Biden win (by 10 percentage points or more); 2) Modest Biden win (by less than 10 points); and then 3) a Sanders win (no margin specified). Essentially, what I took away from that piece is the margin on Saturday really matters for Biden going forward.

Is that fair?

geoffrey.skelley: A big win for Biden resets the media narrative just a few days before Super Tuesday — and that could be big. It might pull back some moderate voters who had been testing out Bloomberg into Biden’s camp.

galen: Yeah, I think the media is ready to tell the Biden comeback story so if it is born out in the actual election results, well, all the better from a narrative perspective.

Also, the Democratic Party apparatus is not super excited about Sanders, to say the least, so if Biden were to win big, they could start to rally around him in a more concrete way if he wins decisively.

clare.malone: And as the Biden people will tell you, they’ve always put a big focus on the trove of Southern states that the March contests will bring.

They think they have a lot of strength there and that they can mine a whole lot of votes.


geoffrey.skelley: Yes, basically if Biden is able to get a large enough win and then do fairly well on Super Tuesday, you might see a rallying effect for Biden as the Sanders alternative. I’ve been keeping track of the endorsement picture in 2020 vs. the 2016 GOP race, and what you saw then was a bunch of GOP Congress members and governors made endorsements after South Carolina and Nevada. That hasn’t happened in the Democratic race post-Nevada, so maybe they’re waiting for South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

clare.malone: That’s fair. I think we’re going to see the big reassessment post-Super Tuesday, to be honest.

South Carolina is the shot, Super Tuesday is the chaser. We’ll see what the Wednesday morning after scene is like.

sarahf: So … this is DEFINITELY a broken-record type question at this point, but where does this leave the other candidates in South Carolina? What’s a good scenario for Buttigieg, Warren or Klobuchar in South Carolina moving forward into Super Tuesday?

Is there one?

galen: A good scenario for those candidates coming out of South Carolina is a clear Biden win because if Sanders wins the race, it’s basically over.

But if Biden does well, that could also weaken Sanders in Minnesota and Massachusetts, states that Klobuchar and Warren hope to win, respectively.

Now, I don’t think that means they will win the majority of delegates or the nomination, but I think they’d be doing their part for the party establishment to block Sanders by winning those two states, because otherwise he would probably win them.

geoffrey.skelley: I mean, breaking the double digits might be a reasonable goal for Buttigieg or Klobuchar? They’re at 7 and 4 percent, respectively, in our South Carolina polling average.

Warren is at 8 percent, so her too, I guess.

galen: I just don’t see it happening for Buttigieg and Klobuchar, but hey I’ve been wrong before.

geoffrey.skelley: Buttigieg and Klobuchar might benefit if more white moderates vote in the Democratic primary. South Carolina uses an open primary, so keep an eye on that. There are Republican-leaning voters who are a little skeptical of Trump in places like suburban Charleston and who helped flip the South Carolina 1st to Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in 2018that’s a district President Trump carried by 13 points in 2016.

Not to mention, we saw both Klobuchar and Buttigieg do well among white moderates in New Hampshire, for instance, so it wouldn’t be too crazy to think they might replicate that success here.

galen: To Geoff’s point, I went to a diner in North Charleston yesterday and spoke with a white voter who called himself an independent and told me he really likes Buttigieg. However, he told me he would be out of town and didn’t plan on voting. He said he didn’t realize until he heard on the radio the other day that he could vote in the Democratic primary.

geoffrey.skelley: Democracy!

clare.malone: What a recommendation for the radio!

galen: I also spoke to an elderly man wearing a MAGA hat at the diner. A reminder that President Trump is holding a rally in North Charleston in Friday even though there isn’t a Republican primary here.

You might call that … trolling?

sarahf: It would be interesting if Biden does well among black Democrats in South Carolina but not as well among white Democrats (and independents, etc.), and we see a kinda a repeat of what happened in New Hampshire.

Does that undermine Biden’s electability argument at all if he continues to not win over white moderate support?

galen: Well, if the Monmouth poll is any indicator, Biden will do fine with both black and white moderates here.

geoffrey.skelley: If South Carolina does work out that way, Super Tuesday will end up answering that question. Is there a notable increase in Biden’s support among white moderates? Or does he continue to split them with Buttigieg, Klobuchar and, of course, Bloomberg, who debuts that day?

galen: The big question to me is how likely it looks like this is all headed to a contested convention. If it looks that way after Super Tuesday, then the other moderates will have a reason to stay in. But if Biden looks like he can win a majority or strong plurality, I think the party will be like PLEASE GTFO of this race.

And considering that Buttigieg and Klobuchar want to be in good standing with the party, they will probably oblige.

I have no idea about Bloomberg, though.

geoffrey.skelley: It was so clear that Clinton was going to win easily in South Carolina in 2016 that I don’t recall people making much of the fact that there were only three days separating South Carolina from Super Tuesday last time around. She was the favorite for the nomination and was going to win the Palmetto State in a walk. This time, though, the favorite for the nomination — Sanders — is behind in South Carolina, and as Nate wrote, a big Biden win could alter the race’s trajectory to some extent. But once again, there are just three days between these events, so how South Carolina affects things is more uncertain.

sarahf: So how important, then, is South Carolina for the rest of the race? To me, it feels like the stakes are higher than in the first three states, because it really is a question now of whether Biden’s campaign remains viable, right?

galen: So, I think South Carolina will help shape the narrative of the race going forward, but like Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is actually not very representative of the Democratic party demographically. There are only five states in the country where the Democratic electorate is majority black — South Carolina being one of them. (Nationally, black voters make up about 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic electorate.)

Also, South Carolina is an overwhelmingly Republican state — 17 points more Republican, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric. So, in some ways, if Biden does well there, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can do well across the rest of the country.

geoffrey.skelley: It seems like Biden will most likely win South Carolina, but if it’s a pretty narrow win, that could be a sign of weakness that doesn’t convince voters who are still considering Bloomberg or Buttigieg or Klobuchar to jump ship and come over to him on Super Tuesday.

If Biden does win by a big margin, though, that could make his campaign far more viable in the long run by winning over some of those voters looking at other moderate alternatives.

As Galen said, South Carolina may not be that representative of the Democratic Party, but it’s certainly pretty important for Biden’s long-term hope of being the leading Sanders alternative.

clare.malone: South Carolina will prime the tank for Super Tuesday, so it’s a really important set-up. If Warren, for instance, finishes low again, perhaps even lower than Klobuchar, and then performs spottily on Super Tuesday, I really wonder if her campaign is over. A sad political story of steady rise and precipitous fall.

Especially if he has a particularly strong showing, I think Biden could potentially set the table for a comeback of sorts (or maybe a campaign to tie or a “no one wins”). But as we’ve said and written before, this whole thing is Sanders’s race to lose.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.