Joe Biden’s campaign has been a flop until now. The campaign might well end if it flops in South Carolina, the next stop.
During the most recent debate, Biden was asked point blank whether he would drop his presidential bid if he were to lose in South Carolina. Instead of saying he would press on in any event, Biden said only that he will win in South Carolina.
Right now, the polls suggest that he will win there, and might even win big. FiveThirtyEight’s poll average gives him a ten point lead over Bernie Sanders — roughly 31 percent to 21 percent, with Tom Steyer third at 14 percent.
In previous primaries and caucuses, Biden has underperformed in relation to his polling, usually to a significant degree. If he does so in South Carolina, that race will be close and Sanders might even win it.
Why has Biden underperformed? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, Biden’s support is soft — in other words, his supporters, though leaning in his favor, view another candidate as about as desirable. Second, his supporters, even those who are sure they favor him, are less enthusiastic than those of his rivals, especially Sanders’s.
Both explanations are plausible and the second is very likely valid. It carries special force in caucus states. A fair amount of enthusiasm is required to show up and caucus, particularly in Iowa during the winter. To the surprise of few, Biden didn’t seem to generate the requisite level of enthusiasm.
South Carolina holds a primary, not caucuses. This is one difference between that state and Iowa and Nevada.
The other difference, which also applies to New Hampshire, is the prominence of the black vote in South Carolina. African-Americans reportedly make up a majority of Democratic voters there.
This bodes well for Biden. He may no longer be the overwhelming favorite of black voters, but he apparently remains their first choice. Even as he was losing Nevada big time, entrance polls indicated that Biden carried the black vote in that state — albeit only by a narrow margin.
In sum, two South Carolina scenarios are plausible: (1) Biden essentially matches (or maybe even exceeds) his poll numbers thanks to the black vote and the fact that this is a primary, not caucuses or (2) Biden once again falls far short of his poll numbers because he just isn’t a compelling candidate.
In the second scenario, Biden is done if he loses and still in big trouble if he wins narrowly. In the first, he lives to fight another day and gains momentum.
This, I think, is what common sense tells us.
Nate Silver offers what I assume is a more empirically based take on the impact of various Biden showings in South Carolina on the upcoming Super Tuesday races. If Biden wins convincingly, he sees Biden gaining more delegates than Sanders in Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. However, with the exception of Alabama, Sanders comes close to matching Biden in each state.
Silver sees Sanders prevailing in California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, Maine, and Vermont. Sanders wins these states decisively. In California, he picks up 207 delegates to Biden’s 102. However, other candidates pick enough delegates to leave Sanders at around 50 percent in California.
If Silver’s projections in a “Biden wins South Carolina big” scenario were to hold up, the race would remain quite competitive after Super Tuesday. Sanders would have picked only 39 percent of the delegates allocated at that point. Biden would have captured 29 percent of them.
However, if Sanders were to win South Carolina, Silver’s model indicates that the race would be all but over. In an intermediate scenario where Biden wins South Carolina but not decisively, Sanders would be a strong, but not prohibitive, favorite to win the nomination.
How much stock should we put in Silver’s models? I don’t know. But it seems to me that his conclusions are in accord with common sense.
Common sense also tells us that the South Carolina primary is huge for the Democrats.