Five things to watch for in South Carolina's results

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE is banking on South Carolina voters to hand him a win in Saturday’s primary that could lend him momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

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It’s the first early contest this year that will be primarily decided by black voters.

Here are five things to watch.


If Biden wins, what’s the margin?

Biden doesn’t just need a win in South Carolina — he needs a big win.

A run of disappointing finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada have raised questions about his electability and ceded his longtime front-runner status to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.).

Recent polls show Biden regaining a big lead in South Carolina following a weeks-long period in which the race had tightened, with Sanders and billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout MORE gaining traction.

But a well-reviewed debate performance in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday and a subsequent endorsement from Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the most influential Democrat in South Carolina, has bolstered Biden’s support.

There’s some debate over just how big of a win Biden needs Saturday.

Some allies say a win is a win, and that any victory will propel their candidate to Super Tuesday on March 3. Others say that he’ll need a runaway victory to truly build momentum.

It’s unlikely that he’ll score the kind of margin that the Democratic Party’s two previous nominees won given the size of this year’s field. Former President Obama won the South Carolina primary in 2008 by roughly 30 points and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE won the contest by close to 50 points in 2016.

What’s the turnout?

How many people turn out to vote in the primary Saturday will be watched closely, partly because Democrats are looking for signs that their voters are excited about the election year and ready to turn out in the general.


Turnout in the first three nominating contests was mixed. More voters showed up for the Iowa caucuses than in 2016, but that number still fell short of expectations. In New Hampshire, turnout bested the record previously set in 2008 when Obama was on the ticket. And in Nevada, more voters showed up to caucus than in 2016, but turnout didn’t meet 2008 levels.

Now, Democrats are looking to South Carolina as an indicator of 2020 turnout, particularly among black voters, who play a crucial role in the party’s coalition, both in the primaries and in the general election.

Democrats see voter turnout as an electoral game changer, arguing that the more people who show up to cast their ballot, the better the party’s chances are of defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE in November. They often point to their wave of House victories in 2018, when turnout hit a 50-year high.

Of course, there are some other variables at play in South Carolina on Saturday. The state’s Democratic nominating contest will be an open primary, meaning that voters don’t have to be registered as Democrats to cast a ballot. That means some Republicans may weigh in, given that there is no GOP primary in the state this year.

Who will get delegates?

If pre-primary polling holds up, only three candidates appear to be on track to win any delegates on Saturday: Biden, Sanders and Steyer.

To receive delegates in the state nominating contest, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote. Recent surveys show Biden and Sanders safely above that threshold. It’s unclear if Steyer will clear it.

Over the course of the past month, polls showed him inching above the 15-percent threshold in South Carolina. But Biden’s bounce-back in recent days appears to have cut into Steyer’s support. The billionaire activist now sits just below the mark in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

The rest of the field — former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii) — are well behind their top-tier rivals and unlikely to win any delegates. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is not on the ballot.

What will we learn about black voters?

Biden has long argued that his strong support from black voters is part of the reason he’s the most electable candidate. After all, no Democratic presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis in 1988 has gone on to win the nomination without winning a majority of support from black voters.

South Carolina is the first state to vote in which a majority of its Democratic electorate is black — about 60 percent in 2016 — meaning that the primary on Saturday will likely provide some early insight into which candidate is best able to reach those voters.

Of course, no voting bloc is a monolith and black voters in South Carolina don’t speak for black voters in other parts of the country.

But if black voters in South Carolina break for Biden in as significant of a way as his allies predict, it may give him momentum heading into Super Tuesday, especially in the southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia and North Carolina that hold their primaries that day.

In the event that black voters in South Carolina are significantly split between Biden and one or more candidates in the Saturday primary, however, it would undermine a critical part of the former vice president’s argument for his electability.

Will it change the nature of the race?

Even if Biden wins big here on Saturday, it’s unclear just how much it will matter to the overall state of the race. No candidate has signaled a willingness to drop out of the race before Super Tuesday, and a handful are already looking past South Carolina in their strategies.

Sanders is leading in polls of some of the most delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, such as California and Texas, raising the possibility that he racks up an insurmountable delegate lead in the March 3 primaries.

At the same time, Bloomberg is set to make his debut on the ballot on Super Tuesday after forgoing runs in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reach voters beyond the four early primary and caucus states.

In an interview on MSNBC on Thursday, Bloomberg’s campaign manager Kevin Sheekey predicted that the outcome of the first southern primary was neither here nor there in how the rest of the race plays out.

“South Carolina is not going to matter — it doesn’t appear to me that anyone is gonna get out of this race before that,” he said.