Political News

Why South Carolina matters for Super Tuesday

Posted March 1, 2020 8:06 a.m. EST

— First things first: The theme song of the week is Ducktales.

Poll of the week: New CNN polls conducted by SSRS finds that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders holds significant leads ahead of Super Tuesday contests in California and Texas.

In California, Sanders leads with 35% to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's 14% to former Vice President Joe Biden's 13% and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's 12%

In Texas, it's Sanders at 29% to Biden's 20% to Bloomberg's 18% and Warren's 15%. No one else is in the double digits in either state.

What's the point: Biden comes out of South Carolina with a head of steam. He scored nearly 50% of the vote and won by nearly 30 points.

CNN's polling demonstrates that if Biden's going to stay competitive with Sanders beyond South Carolina, he's going to need a big and fast bounce out of this win. Super Tuesday is just two days away.

It's difficult to understate the importance of the California and Texas primaries. California accounts for 10% of all the delegates available. Texas is worth an additional 6%. Together, they're worth one-sixth of the delegates for the entire Democratic primary.

The California polling in particular should worry Biden. He (and all the Democrats besides Sanders) are below the 15% threshold necessary to win delegates. While the non-Sanders Democrats would probably be above 15% in at least some congressional districts (where the majority of delegates are allocated), a result matching this poll would be near a disaster for them. Sanders would come away with the vast majority of the delegates from the Golden State.

If Sanders is able to win both California and Texas by significant margins, it'll be tough for his competitors to catch up. It's not only because of the delegate score -- momentum matters in primaries. Voters in later states would likely notice Sanders' large lead and throw more support behind him than they currently are.

You'll notice, however, that I'm using the word "if". There's a reason for that. South Carolina's ability to change a race can be strong.

On the Democratic side, look at the Democratic primary 12 years ago. Before South Carolina, Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by about 10 points nationally. After Obama won it by nearly 30 points, he pulled into a near tie with her nationally. This funneled down to the Super Tuesday states, and Obama went on to win the nomination.

And for Republicans in 2012, Newt Gingrich came out of nowhere to win that year's South Carolina primary by double digits. Examine what happened in the polls for the next primary, Florida. In the 24 hours following South Carolina, he climbed from being down in Florida by over 10 points to Mitt Romney to being up by about 5 points. Of course, Gingrich would lose that advantage rather quickly and ultimately lost Florida by nearly 15 points.

The 2012 example may be especially pertinent because it demonstrates that a mere 72 hours between South Carolina and Super Tuesday this year could prove to be perfect for a premium bounce effect. More time could allow the bounce to subside.

Now, there is the additional impact of early voting this year. In California, more than 16 million ballots were sent out. However, a look at the data suggests that many people are holding back their ballots. That makes sense since primary voters are choosing between options they like (unlike in a general election), and many may wait until the end to finally make up their minds.

To be clear, it could be the case that South Carolina won't change the course in California or Texas this year. Biden is mostly lacking in campaign infrastructure in the Super Tuesday states. And even if Biden gets a large bounce, Sanders is still likely to pick up the most delegates on Super Tuesday. Biden is merely looking to keep his delegate losses to a minimum ahead of some favorable terrain for him later in the primary calendar.

All that really can be said with any real sense of certainty is that Biden needs something to happen following South Carolina, because the status quo on Super Tuesday is a loser for him.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.