COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joe Biden is on the cusp of a major comeback. Bernie Sanders is looking just to hold his own. And the rest of the Democratic field faces the prospect of losing big, especially among black voters.
In the final early state of South Carolina, primary voters on Saturday could alter the trajectory of a Democratic primary that has been practically all Sanders, all the time — and help thin what was once a large herd of candidates.
No candidate is looking forward to the first-in-the-South race more than Biden, who has run three times for president and never won a state. Now the former vice president to the first black president is counting on the state primary’s majority black electorate to crown the 77-year-old as an anachronistic comeback kid and catapult him into contention for the nomination ahead of the Super Tuesday run of states.
“The bigger the win, the bigger the bump,” Biden said Saturday at the Phillis Wheatley Community Center polling station in Greenville.
With the exception of Sanders, for Biden’s opponents it’s more like the bigger the loss, the longer the odds going forward.
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are poised to lose by wide margins in South Carolina. Combined with their mediocre to poor showings in Nevada, that outcome in South Carolina would define them as candidates who can’t appeal to a diverse electorate. Billionaire Tom Steyer is polling better still on track to lose to Biden and Sanders despite pouring a massive amount of his own money into the state.
When compared to the coverage of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Warren has so far escaped major critical coverage about her struggles appealing to non-whites. But polls show her doing worse than Buttigieg in South Carolina, and another survey had the senator trailing Sanders in her home of Massachusetts, a Super Tuesday state.
Steyer, who spent more than $22 million on television alone in South Carolina, has so far waged the least-efficient presidential bid. He was roundly mocked by Democrats after booty-shaking on stage Friday night to a rendition of “Back That Azz Up” with the 90s rapper Juvenile.
The other billionaire in the race, Mike Bloomberg, hasn’t competed in the first four early states. Bloomberg has spent an astonishing $500 million on his campaign, which kicks off Super Tuesday. He decided in November to enter the race after his internal polling predicted a Biden collapse that would help hand the nomination to Warren or Sanders.
But Biden has battled back, and Bloomberg ironically could help Sanders more easily cinch the nomination if the billionaire divides up moderates votes while the Vermont senator consolidates progressives.
In one of the most closely watched Super Tuesday states, Texas, polling suggests Bloomberg is eating into Biden’s margins and boosting Sanders.
Biden’s path to the nomination revolves around carrying moderate white voters and winning heavily African-American congressional districts from California through Texas and across the Southeast during March. Sanders is counting on winning big with Latino voters and progressives.
Just as Biden did in Nevada — where he fashioned a second-place finish as a win — Sanders’ team is also saying that his expected second-place finish will be tantamount to a victory after his thrashing by Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. Clinton beat Sanders by nearly 50 points in the early state, and Sanders struggled mightily from then on in heavily African-American states.
Sanders adviser Chuck Rocha said via text message that the story of his candidate on Saturday, by contrast, will be that “Bernie over-performs in S.C., building off his support in the first three contests with diverse communities, springboarding him into Super Tuesday and putting him in the strongest position to win the nomination and beat Trump!”