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South Carolina Democratic primary 2016: poll closing time and what to expect

Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

Today, South Carolina will become the fourth state to cast its ballots in the Democratic nomination contest, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have one final face-off before next week's Super Tuesday showdown. Polls in the state will be open until 7 pm Eastern.

South Carolina is the first state from the South to weigh in for Democrats and the most delegate-rich state to vote so far. But, like its fellow early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, South Carolina is more important for how it can reshape the political world's perceptions of the race than it is for its delegates.

But few are expecting any big surprises in the Palmetto State today: Hillary Clinton is the universally acknowledged favorite to win, and viewed as likely to win very big indeed.

Clinton has always led Sanders by a lot in state polls there, and she's currently ahead of him by 26 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. If those polls are anything close to right, it will be a blowout.

One big reason why Clinton's leading by so much is that she retains a commanding advantage over Sanders among black voters, who make up a large proportion of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina. For instance, one poll of state voters from Emerson showed Clinton winning black Democrats 71-25. She also won white Democrats, but by the closer margin of 57-40.

Sanders's weakness among nonwhite voters has been clear for some time, but some of his supporters had hoped that strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire could help Sanders improve his prospects there. If the South Carolina polls are right, though, that hasn't really happened, so far at least.

As a result, Sanders's team has been attempting to lower expectations for his performance today. He traveled to other states this week rather than staying just in South Carolina (as Clinton did), and his team has openly admitted they expect to lose. "It's not going to be that close," his pollster Ben Tulchin told the State's Jamie Self and Andrew Shain. "If we had three more months, we could close the gap more."

The upshot of that is that expectations for Sanders are now low enough that if he even gets somewhat close to Clinton, the press will cover it as a surprisingly strong result for him. The polls show such a blowout that even, say, a 13-point win by Clinton might be viewed as good news for Sanders. And there's some logic to that — Democrats allot all their delegates proportionally rather than just to a state's winner. So it's not just about whether Sanders wins or loses, it's about how close the margin is.

But if Sanders does lose in a landslide, that's not a great headline three days ahead of "Southern Super Tuesday" on March 1, when Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas will all go to the polls (as will a few non-Southern states). So we'll see how he and Clinton do tonight.

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