South Carolina Pumps the Brakes

The Palmetto State is 48 hours away from officially salvaging Joe Biden’s candidacy. A week ago, Biden and Bernie Sanders were effectively tied in South Carolina polls. Today, Biden is up by 20 points. Twenty. It’s the best he’s looked there in weeks. You might think he was boosted by Tuesday’s debate and/or the endorsement from Jim Clyburn. Didn’t hurt, but if you check the poll dates, you’ll see the worm started turning right after Nevada. Some of these surveys were completed before the debate.

To recap the chronology, Biden led by a lot for all of 2019. Nobody was close to him in poll averages. Maybe an outlier here or there would put someone within 10 to 15 points, but his lead was dominant. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the closest two candidates, and as neither of them are a great fit for the state, trailed by big margins. Pollsters skipped most of January. Then, as Biden flagged in Iowa and then New Hampshire, his South Carolina numbers suffered. He never trailed, but the margin narrowed significantly. Sanders was up to the low 20s, Tom Steyer was upper teens, while Biden fell to middle/upper 20s.

At this point, looking at the trend line, FiveThirtyEight’s model saw Sanders as a narrow favorite. It was a reasonable conclusion. Especially if Bernie got a good Nevada result and Biden didn’t. Well, Sanders hit the jackpot, getting near 50% of the county delegate equivalents. As much as the Biden campaign tried to spin his second place finish, he was closer to sixth than first. You could imagine he did well enough to stop the erosion, but not that losing by 26 points would launch him.

Except it did. And I suspect the margin of defeat helped. It was helpful that Biden finally finished ahead of Pete Buttigieg, while avoiding a second straight loss to Amy Klobuchar, and staying above the Steyer Line. In the first contest with more than a token amount of voters of color, it was a minimum showing, but expectations dropped so far, he managed to beat them. That preserved Biden as semi-viable. But the bigger assist was how well Bernie did. Simply put, South Carolina doesn’t like following along, and isn’t willing to have the nomination contest end. Voters there know damn well that if Sanders were to win, he’d have this locked up.

In a normal year, New Hampshire plays the “not so fast” role, while South Carolina serves as a tie-breaker. This holds for both Democrats and Republicans. Examples of this are 1980, 1988, 2000, 2008, and 2016 on the Republican side, and 2008 and 2016 for Democrats. The states sometimes act oppositely from one cycle to the next for the same candidate. In 2000, South Carolina broke a tie against John McCain, giving George W. Bush the crucial edge. In 2008, the Palmetto State pushed McCain past Mike Huckabee. In 2008, New Hampshire helped Hillary Clinton by checking Barack Obama post-Iowa. Then South Carolina launched him past her. While in 2016, Hillary got crushed in New Hampshire before being saved by a South Carolina landslide.

Bernie’s poor South Carolina result in 2016 isn’t predictive. Hillary did almost as badly there in 2008, before being on the other side in her next run. Had the first few contests taken a different turn, the state might have helped him now instead of blocking him. But when New Hampshire doesn’t set South Carolina up as an arbiter, the state seems very willing to serve as a barrier. The operative example is 2012.

Much like 2020 Biden, 2012 Newt Gingrich led the majority of polls 4 to 6 weeks before Iowa. Then he cratered, finishing fourth in Iowa with 13.3%, and in a tie for fourth in New Hampshire at 9.4%. This is almost exactly where Biden landed. On the GOP side, Nevada goes after South Carolina, and with Mitt Romney having a big edge there, it wasn’t strongly contested. Romney and Rick Santorum effectively tied in Iowa (Romney was first announced as the winner, weeks later it went to Santorum, but either way a few votes separated them.) Romney won New Hampshire easily.

South Carolina could have opted for Romney. He’d done decently there in 2008, and the state could have decided they liked him better the second time, as they did with McCain and Hillary. They could have picked Santorum. But despite his being culturally conservative, normally a decent fit, the state went all in on Newt. He had a good debate moment, where he took apart the moderator, but it wasn’t just that.

Like Biden, he had ties there, and made it a key focus during the months ahead of voting. He wasn’t a new face. Without a tie to break, South Carolina put it’s foot down, and it landed in favor of the guy they knew best. Much how Biden, not the previously surging Steyer, is the beneficiary now.

When Biden and his campaign continuously spoke of a South Carolina firewall, pundits made the connection to Rudy Giuliani’s supposed 2008 firewall in Florida. Rudy’s defenses got rolled faster than the French Maginot Line in 1940. But that wasn’t the correct comparison. Guiliani’s ties to Florida were through all of the New Yorker expats. Like current or former residents of most large states, New Yorkers like a winner above all. His successor Mike Bloomberg is polling well in Florida and New York, but not well enough to guarantee victory if he doesn’t do well first in other places.

Had Giuliani done decently to well in Iowa or New Hampshire, Florida might well have held for him. But it’s a front-running state as presidential candidates go. They threw sitting Senator Marco Rubio over the side in 2016 for seasonal resident Donald Trump. And then voted for Rubio in the senate election that November. They didn’t hate Marco. Just weren’t going to support a loser.

Some states have distinct voting characteristics. And these habits do not belong specifically to one party or the other. A previous NYC mayor, John Lindsey, was disappointed when Florida turned it’s back on him in 1972. This is not a new thing. Don’t fight a land war in Asia. Don’t count on Florida to save your campaign. But, if you have a history in South Carolina, and it looks like the race is going to get settled against you early, the Palmetto State has your six.

Given there was no Gingrich nomination, getting saved by South Carolina isn’t an end in itself. His candidacy ran aground in Florida a couple weeks later. I think the Sunshine State is going to matter a ton in 2020 also. Let’s assume Biden wins big on Saturday. And then does pretty well in the southern Super Tuesday states, even though Sanders will likely win more delegates overall. Bernie is insanely well positioned in California.

Biden probably has a better chance one-on-one against Sanders, than in a world where Bloomberg is a big factor. If I had to guess where the big Biden-Bloomberg showdown will be, it’s Florida on March 17. Bernie is at a major disadvantage there. It’s one of the few states where he could easily trail both moderates. In case you weren’t aware, older voters still aren’t feeling the Bern. And Florida still has plenty of seniors. Also Cubans, some of whom are now registered Democrats, few of whom think it’s nifty that Bernie thinks Fidel Castro did some good things.

Biden got a reprieve. We have a new race. South Carolina applied the brakes. Florida will now serve as a key tie-break. By the morning of March 18, we’ll have a two or three person race, and Bernie will still be on track to have the most delegates or have a fight to the end on his hands to even get a delegate plurality, never mind a majority.

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