How South Carolina May Shape the Democratic Race

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

After Nevada clarified the Democratic contest for the nomination, the South Carolina primary on Saturday may be able to give it structure. It’s starting to look like we’re in for a one-on-one fight between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Maybe.

Biden has moved back into a clear lead in South Carolina polls, fully recovering from his earlier polling slump. Not only is he very likely to finally win a presidential primary, but he could win big: At this point, it’s not even certain that any other candidate could reach the 15% threshold needed to win statewide delegates. Since Sanders leads Biden by only 30 delegates so far and 54 are available on Saturday, the former vice president has a good chance of moving into second place in the delegate count and closing most of the gap with Sanders going into Super Tuesday three days later.

Assuming that happens, perhaps the biggest question is what the other candidates will do. Nate Silver’s forecast model still has the others, who have won only 41 delegates so far, combining for over 1,100 overall. That would easily be enough to prevent anyone from accumulating enough regular pledged delegates to win outright. Instead, the most successful candidates — presumably Biden and Sanders — would have to try to sway delegates pledged to the also-rans, or perhaps try to win on a second convention ballot with the help of superdelegates. The result would likely be a mess for the party regardless of who won.

We’re probably at a tipping point. The more it looks like no one will win a majority, the more the also-rans have an incentive to stay in and win enough delegates to hope to have some clout at the convention. Take, for example, Amy Klobuchar. After disappointing in Nevada, Klobuchar no longer appears to have any realistic chance at winning the nomination. She’s polling in single digits nationally and in South Carolina; her plausible path involved Biden’s collapse, which was certainly possible but hasn’t happened. Still, Silver’s model projects her to win about 65 delegates if she sticks around. That's not much, but if her delegates would vote for the candidate of her choice in a contested convention, it might be worth the costs of staying in.

The same is probably true at this point for Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, although at least they are close enough to second place in the South Carolina polls that they might hope to surprise there and get a bounce in the Super Tuesday contests. As for Michael Bloomberg, who isn’t on the ballot on Saturday but will finally compete on Tuesday, it’s been true from the start and continues to be true that the most likely effect of his campaign is to split the mainstream liberal vote and make Sanders the nominee. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Could we get another helping of chaos? Sure. It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that the polls are wrong and that Sanders will beat Biden in South Carolina after all, which would make Sanders an odds-on favorite going forward. It’s possible and slightly more likely that Sanders has been damaged in the last week more than national polls let on, and that he’ll fade so badly that someone else — Bloomberg, Warren or even Buttigieg — will emerge from Super Tuesday as the main alternative to Biden, with Sanders reduced to a factional spoiler role. And then there’s the other billionaire in the race, Tom Steyer. He’s been clobbered in three consecutive contests, but polled better in South Carolina. If that polling holds up — and I suspect it won’t — he could win some publicity and continue to be disruptive going forward, albeit without any realistic chance at the nomination.

The most likely result in South Carolina, however, is a solid win from Biden, a respectable second for Sanders, and some very big questions for the others about whether to continue as spoiler candidates or not.

1. Karrie J. Koesel, Valerie Bunce and Jessica Chen Weiss at the Monkey Cage on dictators.

2. Sean Trende on Bernie Sanders.

3. Louis Jacobson on the Democratic nomination rules.

4. David Roberts on Elizabeth Warren.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Therese Raphael on the WHO.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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