(UPDATED 3/1 PM REGARDING BUTTIGIEG WITHDRAWAL)
With each additional Democratic contest, the nomination contest comes into clearer focus, although Joe Biden’s unambiguous victory tonight merely keeps him in the race, as the composition of the South Carolina Democratic electorate certainly won’t be replicated in the gauntlet of contests that the remaining five Democratic (Tom Steyer dropped out immediately after results came in, Pete Buttigieg dropped out a day later) candidates will face, with 25 states about to have contests over the next month (Louisiana’s primary will be the 26th contest on April 4). Here are the main takeaways:
High turnout – again: Thus far, a pattern is developing: in caucus states (Iowa and Nevada), turnout is between 2016 and the record turnout levels of 2008, while in primary states (New Hampshire and now South Carolina), turnout approaches or exceeds 2008 levels. New Hampshire’s 297K turnout surpassed the precious 2008 record of 285K. South Carolina’s turnout of 528K has easily surpassed the 2016 number of 371K, and may exceed the 532K turnout record set in 2008 once all the vote has been counted.
The black vote speaks: While Joe Biden led over Sanders among black voters in Nevada, it was hardly a dominating lead. That changed with South Carolina’s black majority Democratic electorate, which helped him run a strong first with 48.5% of the vote.
However, while a lead that wide puts Biden back in contention, the black majority electorate present in South Carolina will NOT be the case in many of the 25 contests that will be held throughout the month of March. So for now, his victory has to be treated as a “sugar high” in the same way as Amy Klobuchar’s third place finish in New Hampshire was (incidentally, she received 3% of the South Carolina vote).
And then there were five: Now that Tom Steyer (one of the two billionaires in the race) and Pete Buttigieg have dropped out, how do the remaining five candidates stack up in terms of their positioning for the March contests ?
Joe Biden was a clear winner, winning every county in the state and nearly tripling his Nevada showing (percentage-wise) by dominating both among blacks and white Southerners. This certainly helps him in several of the southern contests that will hold primary contests Tuesday. However, to move from viability to dominance, he has to prove his worth outside the South in states like Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio which are scheduled just after Super Tuesday. Still, it’s technically correct to say that Biden now is the dominant contender in the “moderate” swim lane relative to Klobuchar (Bloomberg remains a wildcard).
While Bernie Sanders at least finished second with 20%, he is clearly weak among black and/or Southern voters like he was in 2016. Which means he has to show dominance in northern and/or Western contests. Still, as long as he’s winning primaries, he has to be thought of not only as the dominant player in the “liberal/progressive” swim lane but as a finalist for the Democratic nomination. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has diversified his liberal base with Hispanic support (as evidenced by the Nevada vote).
Pete Buttigieg started off as a viable competitor to Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his 3rd place finish in Nevada and 4th place finish in South Carolina (with 8%) deprives him of a functional base of support. And with Biden’s (for now) revival, that makes the moderate swim lane he resides in even more problematic. These considerations most likely led to his withdrawal the day after the South Carolina balloting.
Michael Bloomberg’s heavy spending in Super Tuesday contests certainly means he can’t be counted out. But he has not participated in the first four contests, and questions about his record have begun to reach a critical mass among the voting public. In other words, he’s rapidly approaching questions about his electoral viability as well. Of course, we’ll have a clearer picture once actual voters weigh in.
In South Carolina, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar finished fifth (with 7%) and sixth (with 3%), respectively. They are now treading water, although at least in Klobuchar’s case, she had a respectable 3rd place finish in New Hampshire. Still, it’s doubtful that either or both can last after “Super Tuesday.”
The two halves of the Democratic Party – There are really two electoral “swim lanes” in the Democratic Party contest right now. The “liberal swim lane” (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer up until his 2/29 withdrawal) in the aggregate got 38% of the vote (it was 43% in Iowa, 39% in New Hampshire, and 56% in Nevada).
The “moderate swim lane” (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg up until his 3/1 withdrawal, and Amy Klobuchar) received 60% of the vote (it was 49% in Iowa, 53% in New Hampshire, and 43% in Nevada).
Without any withdrawals from the remaining candidates in the race, this liberal/moderate split continues to favor Bernie Sanders, especially now that he only has one competitor (Elizabeth Warren), and her chances continue to diminish with each abysmal Election Night showing. On the other hand, the “moderate” vote remains split two ways (potentially three ways, depending on Michael Bloomberg’s performance).
Super Tuesday – This will be a massive, with 14 contests being held on the same day across the country. And as this article is being written, over 8 million have early voted, which means that the evolving Democratic contest may likely not be reflected in the choices those early voters have already made – before Bloomberg’s record came under withering scrutiny, and before Biden showed signs of life starting with the Nevada contest a week ago.
Adding to the complexity of the upcoming electoral verdict is that in three states (California, Colorado, and Utah), mail in voting will play a substantial part, which means (due to the time it takes to count these ballots) we may not have complete results in those contests before the next round (March 10) of contests, like Michigan and Missouri.