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Biden and Sanders vie for strong South Carolina finishes, as Steyer eyes his first delegates

The three South Carolina frontrunners spent the last hours of their campaigns in the state projecting confidence, attacking Trump, and dancing with Juvenile.

Biden smiles surrounded by fans; a woman shakes his hand as other snaps photos.
Joe Biden speaks with supporters in Spartanburg, South Carolina ahead of the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Voting began early Saturday morning in the South Carolina Democratic primary, and the frontrunners in the state — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and entrepreneur Tom Steyer — spent the final hours of their South Carolina campaigns making impassioned final pitches.

Biden has been leading in the state’s polls, and has been projecting confidence following disappointing finishes in the first three contests, capping off a Saturday spent visiting polling places by predicting a “full comeback” during an afternoon rally in North Carolina.

Sanders, who swept the first three contests of the primary, held a final event in Spartanburg, SC with support from Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. And Steyer — who has been targeting the state aggressively for weeks — spent the final hours ahead of voting dancing with Juvenile at a campaign rally that went viral.

Saturday’s primary will launch a spirited sprint into Super Tuesday, when 14 states, one territory, and Democrats living overseas will hold their nominating contests — with 1,357 delegates on the line.

That’s why, for these three frontrunners, the mood leading into the South Carolina primary was one of urgency.

Biden has been polling ahead in South Carolina for weeks, after a fourth place finish in Iowa, a fifth place result in New Hampshire, and second place in the Nevada caucuses. RealClearPolitics’ polling average puts him more than 12 points ahead of Sanders.

That polling has given him a sense of confidence he has not hesitated to share. At a rally Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, North Carolina, he said, “Today is a great day, because I tell you what, the full comeback starts in South Carolina,” he said, adding, “We’re going to win South Carolina. And the next step is North Carolina.”

From those projected victories, he claimed, “it’s a straight path to the nomination for president of the United States of America.”

And many experts believe Biden is correct. A victory in South Carolina would provide more than just a surge of momentum: it would save his candidacy, Anton Gunn, Barack Obama’s 2008 South Carolina political director, told Vox’s Li Zhou.

“If Joe Biden wins by a small margin, then I think his campaign is on life support,” Gunn said. “If he comes in second or worse, I think he’s done.”

Meanwhile, Sanders received a bump in the polls after his New Hampshire primary victory. His win in Nevada, the contest’s first diverse state and one in which he received broad support from a diverse coalition, lending further credibility to his argument he is the most “electable” candidate.

This was something Sanders emphasized in his final message to South Carolina voters in a speech in which he spent less time talking about the race in the state and more contrasting himself with President Donald Trump on issues of health care, commitment to democracy, and the government’s response to the novel coronavirus.

“One might think that in the midst of a major health care crisis the President of the United States would be assembling doctors, scientists and researchers,” Sanders said. “Not Donald Trump. ... I say to Donald Trump ... start worrying about the coronavirus and health care crisis in America. Do your job as president.”

Steyer — who has made outreach to South Carolina’s black community the cornerstone of his campaign in the state — took a different, more relaxed approach.

The entrepreneur, who has been polling around 15 percent in the state, spent his Friday night partying at an HBCU in Columbia.

Like Biden, Steyer has made South Carolina the linchpin of his presidential efforts, and has spent more than $18 million in the state. He has also attempted to grow his appeal among black voters: “He has been praised for his strong canvassing operation, as well as his practice of hiring black businesses for campaign work,” Vox’s Sean Collins has written.

At his Friday rally, Steyer promised more of those sorts of investments in the months to come — particularly in the area of voter registration.

“Win, lose or draw, I fell in love with the people of South Carolina,” Steyer said. “I’m never leaving. Honestly, I am never leaving. Because this is a completely righteous fight, and we’re going to win this fight.”

The race’s other candidates did not show similar optimism — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is expected to finish fourth or fifth, hosted a small rally in Columbia on Saturday morning where she made her pitch for “big, structural change” and, like Sanders, positioned herself opposite Trump: “Our democracy hangs in the balance,” Warren said. “And you, in South Carolina, have a decision to make.”

With Super Tuesday looming, other, lower polling candidates seem to acknowledged that their efforts were best spent elsewhere. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who, along with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has struggled to appeal to black voters (a problem in South Carolina given the Democratic electorate there is about 60 percent black) — bowed out of the state earlier in the week, off to build a case in states that deemed more crucial going into Super Tuesday.

The stakes are high going into Super Tuesday

The top three candidates in South Carolina also made clear that they’ve got Super Tuesday momentum on the mind. The stakes are high: As Vox’s Li Zhou noted, South Carolina is “the place former Vice President Joe Biden is betting on to save his flailing campaign.”

And essentially, the results in South Carolina will likely be a “harbinger” of Super Tuesday, as Collins writes:

Should Biden have a decisive win in South Carolina, expect his campaign to regain some of its lost steam, possibly picking up wins in not just [Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi — states with populations similar to South Carolina], but collecting a sizable delegate haul in places like Texas as well. Similarly, a strong showing from Sanders would burnish his frontrunner status, boosting his argument that his coalition is more diverse than his 2016 one. And a better-than-expected showing from Steyer could give him momentum, particularly given he has made considerable financial investments in Super Tuesday states.

While Super Tuesday following so closely on South Carolina’s heels means the state’s winners can expect benefits, it also gives the state’s losers little incentive to drop out, as they hold out hope for quick reversals of fortune.

Going into that day’s contests, Sanders holds a significant lead in California and Texas, the two largest states. According to CNN polling, he leads in Texas with 29 percent support compared to Biden’s 20 percent, Bloomberg’s 18, and Warren’s 15. He leads resoundingly in California at 35 percent, against Warren, Biden, and Bloomberg at 14, 13, and 12 percent respectively.

Those states will offer more than 600 delegates between them, making South Carolina an important place to pick up a victory, both for the narrative such a win would help build, and also the momentum it will give candidates for Tuesday’s contests.

For Sanders, it offers a chance to show that he is a viable alternative to the more moderate like Biden. For Biden and Steyer, it’s a chance for each to prove that he is viable, period.