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Democratic presidential candidates march on MLK Day in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20, 2020.
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The South Carolina primary is a critical springboard for Super Tuesday

It’s the first major test of African American support.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Bernie Sanders is coming in hot to the South Carolina primary — the last early contest before Super Tuesday — where a win could make or break former Vice President Joe Biden.

“If Joe Biden wins by a small margin, then I think his campaign is on life support,” says Anton Gunn, Barack Obama’s 2008 South Carolina political director. “If he comes in second or worse, I think he’s done.”

South Carolina, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, has an incredibly diverse Democratic electorate: Sixty percent of the state’s Democratic voters are African American, compared to less than 5 percent in the first two states. That could mean good news for Biden, who enjoys strong support among older African Americans, but the pressure is on.

After his fourth and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a distant second placement in Nevada, a whole lot is riding on how he does in the South.

And Biden isn’t the only one facing the squeeze. The outcome in South Carolina is widely viewed as a bellwether for several subsequent states — and a critical springboard for Super Tuesday: Barring one recent exception in 2004, when Sen. John Edwards won the primary, multiple Southern states tend to go the same way as South Carolina.

The state’s voters will cast their ballots one week after the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, February 29, with polls opening at 7 am ET and closing at 7 pm ET.

South Carolina does not have early voting, but people can vote ahead of time via mail-in absentee ballots or in-person absentee voting. Candidates will be competing for the state’s 54 pledged delegates, which are allocated proportionally based on performance, and guaranteed to anyone who hits 15 percent support in the state, or in one of the seven congressional districts.

As the first major test of African American support, South Carolina could seriously help cull the field.

Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd after exiting Zion Baptist Church on MLK Day in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20, 2020.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“For [any candidate], that almost is the death knell for their campaigns if they don’t do well in South Carolina,” Johnnie Cordero, the head of the state’s Democratic Black Caucus, told Vox.

The state’s results, after all, are set to be quite revealing. Sanders is currently making inroads among Biden’s black supporters, and could use South Carolina to further prove his strength. Moderate candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have to show that they can rally support from nonwhite voters, and Tom Steyer needs to demonstrate that his massive investments in the state can translate to real votes.

From a practical standpoint, South Carolina — like New Hampshire — won’t be dealing with the same technical complications the caucuses have faced. Since 1980, the state has employed a primary system for presidential elections, including a standard secret ballot enabling voters to pick their top choice.

The state is also among a handful that have an open primary system, which means that Republicans or independent voters can participate in the Democratic contest.

Since it was added as an early state in 2008, South Carolina has a history of sending a decisive signal in the Democratic primary — something that’s desperately needed this year.

Who could win in 2020 — and who needs to

Joe Biden is betting big on South Carolina, but it’s unclear whether his efforts will be enough.

His chances don’t look as good as they used to: While Biden once held a double-digit polling lead in the state — buoyed by deep ties with South Carolina lawmakers and his work with former President Obama — his polling margins have declined significantly.

“People aren’t going to vote for someone who can’t win,” Dalhi Myers, Richland County vice director and a Biden-turned-Sanders supporter, told Vox. “If you’re the most electable, you’re going to have to get elected somewhere.”

It’s likely Biden could still eke out a win, though it’s not expected to mirror the landslides once secured by Obama or Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016. As his campaign notes, though, a single-digit margin of victory would still be larger than some of the margins winning candidates have seen in prior states.

“I don’t think anybody realizes the depth of the affection of the state [for Biden],” emphasizes Marguerite Willis, a Biden supporter and former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate.

Joe Biden greets supporters during a South Carolina campaign launch party on February 11, 2020.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

State experts note that a close outcome would be disappointing, largely because the campaign had set such high expectations. Others who’ve been circling Biden’s lead are Sanders, whose base of voters has remained steady in the state, and Steyer, who’s invested more than $18 million in advertising.

Steyer has gotten a massive spike in support from African American voters in the latest polls, gains that state experts say are the result of investments he’s made in local staffers, hiring minority vendors, and plenty of outreach.

“If you’re black, you probably get two to three mailers from Steyer a week,” says Democratic strategist Clay Middleton, a former adviser for Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign. “I even saw his commercial on the weather channel.”

Due to his lack of broader profile, though, it’s unclear how much of the enthusiasm Steyer has generated will materialize at the polls — and whether a strong performance in South Carolina will be able to help him in races down the line. Sanders’s steady strength, meanwhile, marks a major difference from his showing in 2016, when he lost to Clinton by nearly 50 points.

When it comes to the remaining frontrunners, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, as well as former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have been lagging the state’s top three candidates, though all have seen strong performances in recent debates and primaries.

The state will indicate if Klobuchar and Buttigieg, who’ve struggled to build support among African American voters, have made any real progress on this front.

The significance of the South Carolina primary

South Carolina has always been significant, both because it’s the first state where African American voters are a major part of the electorate and because of its ability to foreshadow how candidates will do in a number of Southern states down the line. This year, its primary is taking place just three days before Super Tuesday, when more than 1,300 delegates will be allocated.

Historically, at least four Southern states — Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi — have voted for the same Democratic nominee as South Carolina, giving this candidate a windfall of delegates. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright attributes this trend to the fact that many of these states have similar demographics as South Carolina’s electorate, which in addition to being majority African American is also majority women.

“Right after South Carolina, a lot of Southern states with similar demographics hold contests,” says Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political science professor and author of First in the South, a book dedicated to examining the role of the state’s primary.

This cycle, in particular, given the size of the Democratic field, the state is poised to help with the winnowing process and clearly indicate who will perform well in diverse states.

“If you cannot pick up black support in South Carolina, how the hell are you going to get it three days later elsewhere?” says Middleton.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren supporters in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20, 2020.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Many experts in the state emphasized that the quirks of this cycle not only underscore the importance of South Carolina but also demonstrate why candidates shouldn’t ignore the state.

“I hope this election serves as a wake-up call for candidates whose strategies center on Iowa and New Hampshire,” state Rep. Kambrell Garvin, a Warren supporter, tells Vox.

Several South Carolinians also emphasized that voters were determined to put their own imprint on the election, dismissing the idea that the whiter early states set the tone for the race. According to Knotts’s research, the results in New Hampshire, in particular, have had a quantifiable effect on the South Carolina primary, though this year is set to be more scrambled because of how competitive the pool is.

“We will be doing something different than what you’ve seen in Iowa and New Hampshire,” state Sen. Marlon Kimpson tells Vox. “We have more African Americans in Sumter, South Carolina, than the entire state citizenry of New Hampshire.”

How to win in South Carolina

Winning in South Carolina is all about hiring local — and putting in the time.

“So much of this is hand to hand, person to person. People want to see you. They expect you to drop by and have a cup of coffee and iced tea, and talk on the front porch,” says Willis, who ran for governor in 2018.

To build a strong ground game, campaigns need to have a team that has strong ties to the region. “The first thing that works is to have a campaign staff that is from South Carolina, not flown in, not parachuted in — people who are born and raised in South Carolina, or have a long history in the state as a campaign operative,” says Gunn. “The first question from a South Carolina voter is, ‘Where’d you grow up?’”

Gunn also calls on candidates to hire staffers that reflect the diversity of the state, urging them to employ a team that’s predominantly women and at least 75 percent African American.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Florence, South Carolina, October 26, 2019.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Hiring local vendors for campaign needs whether that’s graphic design or tech assistance is important, too. And establishing a field presence across the state’s seven congressional districts that connects with voters both at home and in local gathering spots like churches and community centers is integral. “The campaigns who win are the ones who are literally knocking on doors — going to people’s cookouts where they are,” says Gunn.

Because the state is both accessible and influential, organizing in South Carolina can have an effect beyond its borders. Although there’s a wide mix of rural areas and urban centers, candidates are able to traverse the state’s 46 counties rather quickly.

“From the low country to the upstate is a four-and-a-half-hour drive,” says Middleton. “You could cover the entire state in two days and hit urban and rural areas alike. You cover three other state media markets: Charlotte, Savannah, Augusta.”

The Democratic electorate in South Carolina is by far the biggest of any of the four early states — with nearly 370,000 voters participating in the 2016 primary. It also tends to skew older and more moderate than some of the other early states. “South Carolina Democrats are more religious; they are a little more moderate than national Democrats,” says Knotts.

The race is much more fluid — and fractured — this year than in the past

For the past two Democratic cycles, the winner was pretty apparent. Obama and Clinton both won their primaries in 2008 and 2016 with double-digit margins. In 2020, that outcome is likely to be more muddled.

“Normally, we have a pretty good sense of who’s going to win. This year, there are a lot of people who are still searching for a candidate,” says Furman University political science professor Danielle Vinson. According to a Winthrop University poll of the state that was released in mid-February, 43 percent of voters said they could still change their minds.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is coming into the South Carolina primary as the Democratic frontrunner.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Much of this uncertainty is attributed to the crowded field and Biden’s sluggish start. “Part of it is that there’s so doggone many of them,” says Vinson. “We’re just kind of drowning in candidates right now.”

Even as Democrats sort out their own selections, South Carolina’s open primary means that some Republicans may also elect to vote, particularly since their own primary this year has been canceled.

There’s at least one movement from Republicans to vote in favor of Sanders because some GOP voters think he’s the candidate most likely to hurt Biden’s standing in the state if he does well. That effort is largely being pushed by grassroots activists, and the effect of such crossover voting has been quite small in the past.

Ultimately, the results in South Carolina could provide an important clue about which candidates are in it for the long haul.

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