The only way the outcome in South Carolina is meaningful is if Biden gets hope and hype from it. He’s done if he loses, but he’s also effectively done if he wins unimpressively. How excited are voters on Super Tuesday supposed to be about a Biden “comeback,” realistically, if he beats Sanders by a point in his so-called “firewall” state? As of two days ago he wasn’t even airing ads in Super Tuesday states. And there are no more debates between now and then to try to move the needle.
If he wants a burst of voter enthusiasm it’ll have to start with the media, and the only way the media will give it to him is if he blows the roof off in South Carolina. Not just a win but a big win, a win that’ll justify a wave of “BIDEN IS BACK” headlines. Even if Biden gets that, Bernie will still be a heavy favorite to win the most delegates on Super Tuesday. But (a) the Biden comeback narrative may blunt Sanders’s margins, setting up a long-ish primary, and (b) a surprisingly strong finish for Joe on Super Tuesday might convince Mike Bloomberg to give up belatedly, freeing up votes for Biden in the primaries to come.
First, though, he’s gotta blow the roof off in South Carolina. According to a new poll from Clemson University, right now he’s poised … to blow the roof off.
Clemson University Palmetto Poll:
— Kirk Brown (@KirkBrown_AIM) February 26, 2020
Bernie’s not even in second place. In fact, he’s not even at the 15-percent threshold that would qualify him for delegates. That’s the Biden dream scenario for SC, a landslide win that reestablishes him as the undisputed favorite of black Democrats and a dismal Sanders showing that leaves him with few delegates from the state. A surprisingly poor performance by Bernie would also jumpstart a round of media chatter about whether his core problem in 2016, struggling with black voters, will be a problem this year too after it looked from the results in Nevada like he had improved meaningfully with that group.
It’s always possible that what we have here is an outlier. However:
That’s the RCP average of all polls in South Carolina over the past two weeks as of early this morning, *before* the new Biden-landslide poll from Clemson dropped. Biden went from a 14-point lead on February 12 to a two-point(!) lead four days ago … and then, suddenly, began to skyrocket. The last three polls of the state (including this new Clemson one) have had him pulling 31, 35, and 36 percent of the vote; not once in the six polls taken of SC before that had he reached the 30s. What’s happening here, it seems, is that a meaningful number of Biden voters in South Carolina were shaken by his performance in Iowa and New Hampshire and began to waver on him — only to return to the fold in the final few days before the vote, as late-deciders have begun making up their minds. Why that is, I don’t know. Maybe Bernie’s sweep of the first three states has made Dems jittery about socialism, or maybe Tom Steyer’s poor performance in Nevada has convinced voters who were curious about him to switch to Joe. (Although Steyer does a respectable second in the Clemson poll.) Either way, the “Biden blowout” scenario in South Carolina is suddenly back in play after looking completely dead four days ago. Nevada does *not* look to be influencing voters there, unless it’s driving some sort of backlash to Bernie.
Which is not to say we’re set up for a long battle for the nomination. It’s totally possible, maybe likely, that Biden wins big on Saturday and then gets swamped on Super Tuesday anyway, thanks in part to Mike Bloomberg gobbling up his voters and the fact that many votes are already banked via early voting. Only a fraction of the electorate will have seen those “BIDEN IS BACK” headlines before their ballot was cast. Bernie has some encouraging polling today too, in fact, which confounds the theory that he might be having his old problems with African-American voters again:
Among all registered Democrats and independents [nationally], 26% said they would vote for Sanders, while 15% said they were backing Bloomberg and another 15% supported Biden…
He also has increased his share of support from African Americans in the latest poll. When asked which candidate they would support in their state’s nominating contest, 26% said they would vote for Sanders, up 7 points from a previous reading conducted Jan. 29-Feb. 19.
Another 23% said they would back Biden, down 10 points from the last survey, and 20% would support Bloomberg, a rise of 10 points…
Meanwhile, after Sanders’ definitive win in last week’s Nevada caucuses, 26% of registered Democrats and independents now see the senator from Vermont as the most electable of the party’s presidential candidates. Another 20% said it was Bloomberg and 17% said it was Biden.
Bernie is now the plurality choice nationally among black Democrats and the plurality choice among all Dems on electability. At barely a quarter of the vote, those pluralities are about as weak as a plurality can be. And it’s likely that they’re possible only because of the insane centrist stalemate between Biden and Bloomberg, with either of those two candidates apt to vault ahead of Sanders on those two metrics if the other were out of the race. But we are where we are, and where we’re all but certain to be six days from now on Super Tuesday. All Sanders needs is for the “muddle in the middle” to hold for another week and he’ll basically be assured of at least a plurality of delegates at the convention once the primaries are over.
The only thing that might complicate that for him is a Biden blowout in SC. If Joe wins big and parlays that victory into outperforming Bloomberg next Tuesday, maybe Bloomy quits. Maybe he even decides to back Biden. Then the race turns interesting. But that’s the only scenario left in which it does.
Here’s Jim Clyburn this morning in South Carolina doing his best to encourage Joementum.