Joe Biden’s Projected Victory in South Carolina Will Not Stop Bernie Sanders’s Surge

After poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden argued that he would do better in states with more diverse electorates. His subsequent second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses supports his claims, but Bernie Sanders’s commanding victory has prompted many South Carolinians to give the Vermont Senator another look. Will Biden’s South Carolina firewall hold? Could his campaign change its fortune and find a way to win the nomination?

After poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden argued that he would do better in states with more diverse electorates. His subsequent second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses supports his claims, but Bernie Sanders’s commanding victory has prompted many South Carolinians to give the Vermont Senator another look. Will Biden’s South Carolina firewall hold? Could his campaign change its fortune and find a way to win the nomination?

Polling data indicates Biden will win the South Carolina primary. The current RealClearPolitics polling average estimates that the vote will be fragmented between Biden (34%), Sanders (22%) and Steyer (14%). The rest of the field will probably fail to clear the necessary 15% of the vote needed to win a portion of the state’s 54 pledged delegates.

Can a Biden victory in the Palmetto state thwart Sanders’ momentum? It is unlikely in the short term for at least four reasons.

First, even if Biden outperforms his polls, a win will not affect Sanders’ frontrunner status. Biden’s bounce will be tempered by the fact that the Super Tuesday primaries will be held four days after South Carolina’s primary. Sanders’s lead in the national polls is so big that it is difficult to see how Biden will be able to close the gap in such a short time.

Second, The New York Times reports that Biden’s campaign is not on the ground in many of the Super Tuesday states, while Sanders has established an impressive ground game. At stake are 35% of all pledged delegates distributed along 15 contests, including primaries in California and Texas. While the Sanders campaign wants to win the South Carolina primary, its goal for the last weeks has been to win a majority of the pledged delegates on Super Tuesday. Current polls show that Sanders is leading in California and Texas. A big win in South Carolina could help Biden cut down Sanders’ small lead in Virginia and North Carolina, but given California’s 416 pledged delegates and Texas’s 228 all eyes will be on the other two states.

Third, the Biden campaign entered 2020 with the “least amount of cash on hand”. To secure a victory in South Carolina, the campaign has spent over $1 million in advertising in the state. This may explain why it is only spending a modest “six figures” on television commercials on Super Tuesday states. In comparison, Sanders has spent close to $14 million in these states. Biden has even been outspent by former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who have spent $1.6 million and $3.5 million respectively on advertising in these contests.

Fourth, Sanders has won 45 pledged delegates and Biden is in third place behind Buttigieg (25) with 15 delegates. The FiveThirtyEight Democratic Primary Forecast predicts that Sanders will win 14 of South Carolina’s delegates to Biden’s 32. To be sure Biden will celebrate his first victory, but Sanders will still be frontrunner. And once the vote is counted after Super Tuesday the margin between both candidates will widen in Sanders’s favor.

In the long term, a victory in South Carolina may boost the Biden campaign’s finances and help it craft a post-Super Tuesday game plan. Even if Klobuchar were to win her state’s caucuses on Super Tuesday, which is not guaranteed, it is unlikely she will be able to raise enough money to stay in the race. Buttigieg faces a similar predicament. As the field of candidates narrows and future primaries include more diverse group of voters, Biden will have an opportunity — however improbable — to frustrate Sanders’s presidential aspirations.

Biden’s most immediate obstacle is not Sanders, but the state of his campaign’s finances. To add insult to injury, former New York City Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, the California philanthropist, are both using their personal wealth to finance their campaign and their messages appeal to Biden’s core supporters — moderates and African American voters. If Biden fails to consolidate his support among these voting groups in the next weeks, it will be difficult, if not mathematically impossible, to close Sanders’s lead.

Biden will win the South Carolina Democratic primary. And while a “win is a win”, this victory will have a pyrrhic quality to it. Biden has spent so much time and resources protecting his firewall that his campaign has been unable to mount a serious effort to stop Sanders’ momentum or to win a majority of the pledged delegates in the Super Tuesday contests.