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What to expect at Tuesday’s Democratic debate in South Carolina

Tuesday’s debate ahead of the South Carolina primary could be critical.

Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren at the last Democratic presidential debate. The next one is Tuesday in South Carolina.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

After Bernie Sanders’s decisive win in the Nevada caucuses, the Democratic candidates are gathering in the next primary state of South Carolina for Tuesday’s presidential debate.

The leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination will take the stage at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, February 25. The debate will start at 8 pm Eastern and is expected to last about two hours.

CBS and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute are hosting the debate. It will be moderated by CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell and CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King. Face the Nation moderator and senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan, chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker will also ask the candidates questions. You can watch on CBS, BET, and Twitter.

Seven candidates made the cut and will appear at Tuesday’s event:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
  • Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
  • Billionaire activist Tom Steyer

Sanders is the delegate leader after Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. His strong polling nationally and across most states gives him the early edge in winning the nomination.

But it looks likely to be a long slog; FiveThirtyEight thinks the odds of a Sanders nomination are about as good as the odds no candidate wins a majority of the delegates up for grabs during the primary. A contested convention this summer doesn’t seem out of the question.

With Sanders in the lead, the race behind him is quite muddled. Buttigieg effectively tied Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white states. But he fell back to a distant third in Nevada, where the electorate is much more diverse. Biden struggled in the first two states but rebounded for a second-place finish in Nevada. He has prioritized South Carolina as a must-win state from the start of the race.

Warren surged late in Nevada, and her campaign is trying to make the case that she still has a viable path. Bloomberg has risen quickly in national polls, and he is targeting delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, but it remains to be seen if he can hold up to scrutiny from the press and his opponents. He’s also likely looking to put up a stronger debate performance after he became something of a punching bag for the other candidates last week.

The Democratic National Committee has increased the debate qualifications throughout the campaign season. For this debate, candidates had to get at least 10 percent support in four DNC-approved national polls or 12 percent support in two South Carolina state polls. They could also have won at least one delegate in the first three contests.

The debate will give the candidates one more chance on a national stage to shape up the race — a race that, for now, Sanders is the favorite to win. The next debate isn’t until March 15, after Super Tuesday, when so many delegates will be won and lost.

Bernie Sanders is starting to pull away in the Democratic race

In Nevada, Sanders finally got the decisive victory he’d been lacking after effectively tying in Iowa and New Hampshire. His margin of victory over the other five candidates who see themselves as viable threats to the nomination was substantial: Sanders got 47 percent of the final tally, while Biden was second at 20 percent.

And it came in a state that has moved up the primary calendar because party leaders think it has the kind of voters — young, diverse — Democrats will need going forward.

Sanders finally put a little distance between himself and Buttigieg. Going by numbers from earlier in the day in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, he is at this point really the only Democratic candidate with a good chance (47 percent) of winning a majority of DNC delegates and the nomination.

But “no one” is nipping at his heels, raising the possibility of a contested convention if nobody wins the nomination in the primary elections. A candidate needs to win more than half of the nearly 4,000 DNC delegates awarded in the primary elections. There is still quite a long way to go: Less than 5 percent of the delegates have been awarded at this point.

For Sanders, being a party outsider, accumulating as many delegates as possible and making his nomination seem inevitable — whether he wins an outright majority or not — is incredibly important. He’s gained some ground in that race with a strong win in Nevada.

But it could also make him the top target in the debate, as the other candidates seek to establish themselves as the best option to topple him. Last time, he mostly avoided tough treatment, with the exception of Buttigieg; Bloomberg took the majority of the heat. That may change on Tuesday night.

The race to be Sanders’s top competitor for the nomination is still unsettled

With everybody anticipating a Sanders win in Nevada, a lot of the pre-caucus speculation was about who would come in second. Would Buttigieg solidify his place as the Sanders alternative? Could Biden rebound ahead of South Carolina, his must-win state? What if Warren parlayed a strong debate into a surprise second-place finish?

Instead, the story out of Nevada was that Sanders is running away with the nomination and there is little clarity about the strongest opponent to challenge him.

Biden finally outperformed expectations by coming in second, but he still trailed far behind Sanders. Buttigieg seems likely to struggle in the more diverse states coming up on the calendar, including South Carolina, given his low support among voters of color. Warren is closer to Sanders ideologically than the rest but has yet to break out at the ballot box. Bloomberg is certainly spending a lot of money to crowd out the other non-Sanders bids, but he is stuck in the muck with the rest of them in the polling.

Even before Nevada, FiveThirtyEight gave Sanders 4-in-10 odds of winning the primary; Biden is now considered the second most likely nominee, but his chances are just 8 percent. Bloomberg is at 5 percent. Nobody else had better than a 1-in-100 chance.

As the Republican establishment learned in 2016, you can’t just play for second against an insurgent frontrunner. Democrats are starting to learn the same lesson the hard way. We will see if the other candidates direct their attention more fully to Sanders at the debate.

South Carolina is another critical point in the race

With so many black Democratic voters, South Carolina has always been important to Biden’s chances. He was widely expected to struggle in the more activist-driven states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but black voters are supposed to be core to his base. If he can’t win here, it will be hard to make a case he’s the most electable candidate in the field.

Sanders has been surging in South Carolina, with his average support in the polls rising from 14 percent at the beginning of the year to 22 percent the week of the primary. He trails Biden by 4 points in the FiveThirtyEight average. If he could pull off an upset here, his odds of winning the Democratic nomination should look even better.

Buttigieg and Warren will surely try to turn in a strong debate on Tuesday and use it as a springboard to a strong finish in the Saturday primary. But they’ll have to make quite a leap: both are polling under 10 percent in the average. South Carolina could be the last stand for Steyer, who has poured millions into the state and has seen strong polling as a result (he’s currently third behind Biden and Sanders). But it’s hard to see a viable path for him once we get past the Palmetto State. The same goes for Klobuchar.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, is waiting for Super Tuesday, when 14 states and a territory vote and one-fourth of the DNC delegates will be won. Any strong performance in South Carolina would be a bonus. But first, he will need to survive another night onstage with his peers, who attacked him relentlessly at the last debate, his first of the primary.