South Carolina Preview: Final Predictions

Joe Biden is going to win. Sorry if I ruined the fun. But the margin matters. As does the order others wind up in. Also the delegate count. A candidate needs 15% statewide or 15% in a congressional district to qualify. Biden and Bernie Sanders are going to be over the threshold. Will any of the others? How many candidates finish behind Tom Steyer? There’s no way looking up at him will qualify as momentum going in to Super Tuesday.

For reference, here are the final poll numbers, and here is the FiveThirtyEight projection. One more wrinkle. South Carolina is a truly open primary. In Iowa and Nevada, voters were either registered Democrats or needed to register as such at the caucus. In New Hampshire, Independents could participate in either primary. South Carolina allows both Independents and Republicans to participate in the Democratic primary. And this year, there is no Republican primary. The Trump campaign and its’ various allies have encouraged GOP voters to show up and vote for Bernie (or whomever they think the weakest choice is.)

Personally, I think a party primary shouldn’t include voters from the other team. I’d question the inclusion of Independents, but you can argue that they’re the ones who decide elections, so it’s useful to include their thoughts. Given the level of support Trump has among those still registered as Republicans, this seems like malpractice. However, these rules are made by the state. Caucuses are operated by the state parties, primaries by the state itself. I saw a projection that 29% of South Carolina Democratic primary participants will be Republicans. If this is true, it will help Sanders.

South Carolina doesn’t do early voting, but they do have an absentee program. The difference is early voting states do not require a reason. Voters can turn up at targeted polling places days or weeks ahead of the official Election Day. Here, you need an excuse for why absentee is necessary. It’s not a tough standard to reach, and they don’t check to see if you’re lying, but it does require preparation. As such, even with increased absentee participation this year, it looks like they got about 65,000 participants. Overall turnout is expected to land between 300,000 and 500,000.

Of those absentee ballots, many were turned in after Tuesday’s debate. A good 85 to 90 percent of all South Carolina voters made their decisions after that, uh, event. Even more were post-Nevada. By contrast, about two-thirds of Nevada caucus participants went early, and the debate was after the early caucus period closed. So Elizabeth Warren was able to claim her debate performance was not reflected in the caucus result. No such excuse exists this time. Enough preamble. Here’s what I think will happen:

Biden 40%

Sanders 22%

Buttigieg 12%

Steyer 11%

Warren 7%

Klobuchar 5%

Gabbard 3%

This is mostly where the polls are. Buttigieg has finished a little to somewhat ahead of his final poll numbers in the first three states. Steyer has finished a little to somewhat behind this final poll numbers in the first three states. Until this stops happening, I’m going to assume it will continue. Mayor Pete is within 1.5 points of Steyer in the Real Clear Politics average, a bit further away with FiveThirtyEight’s compilation. In both cases, he’s close enough for the previous pattern to push him just past Steyer.

The good news for Buttigieg is this would be his fourth straight top three finish. Only Bernie can also say that. He would have finished ahead of Warren and Klobuchar all four times. The bad news is this is because of his continued strength with a broad base of white supporters. He didn’t pick up many voters of color in Nevada, and isn’t showing any polling strength here. White voters are the largest group, even in the Democratic Party, and there are a lot of pretty pale places voting on Super Tuesday, but the narrative here won’t help him. And that’s assuming he finishes third, and grabs a delegate or three, which is his upside result.

If Steyer gets a little closer to his final poll numbers than I think, he’ll grab a couple of delegates. Unless the rules change again, getting his first delegate is his ticket to further debate participation. His poll numbers will not qualify him going forward. South Carolina was looking like his best state. He’d even cleared 20% in a poll or two. But it looks like some of those supporters are heading home to Uncle Joe. Not sure what his justification for continuing is if he is a distant third or fourth here and fails to pick up a delegate.

Warren and Klobuchar aren’t going to do well. Their home states vote on Tuesday, and will effectively decide if they can continue pushing forward, or would look ridiculous in doing so. Neither have spent a ton of time in South Carolina this week. Tulsi Gabbard has her 3%. At some point we’ll see if she tries to convert this into a third party run. But for now, she goes on.

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