For the past year, the South Carolina Democratic primary has occupied a special space in the lexicon of the presidential primary among Democratic strategists, cable news pundits, and even some candidates.
Former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign, after all, has called the state its firewall. NPR has called it “so crucial.” College professors have run the numbers and found in the past the state is a “better predictor” for who will be the presidential nominee than other early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
And the state should matter a lot. For candidates, it is the first real test of Black support, a constituency that no recent Democratic nominee has gone without. And other Southern states have generally followed South Carolina’s lead.
However, in the 2020 election cycle, the importance of Saturday’s South Carolina primary may be radically overstated. Except for Joe Biden, there just isn’t a whole lot riding on it for candidates. And while at one point in the summer, it looked like every candidate planned to go big there, they are now discovering there is a bigger bang for the buck to put basically just one foot in South Carolina and the other foot somewhere else.
The reason: Super Tuesday, with 30 percent of all available delegates, is three days later. And that’s where any winner in South Carolina will meet former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who did not compete in the first three states and won’t in South Carolina.
It was different in earlier cycles.
In 2016, for example, when Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses over Bernie Sanders, it reset the contest after her horrible loss to Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. But it was the South Carolina primary, and her 47-point win there, when Clinton began her clear path to the nomination.
For what it’s worth, Donald Trump’s dominant performance in the South Carolina Republican primary also had the same effect in creating a domino effect in becoming the nominee.
In 2016, Super Tuesday was also held three days after the South Carolina primary, but that Tuesday was not as super as it is in 2020. This time around, there are 14 states instead of 11 states and one of the new additions is huge: California.
Now 30 percent of all delegates are up for grabs on Super Tuesday and a look at campaign schedules suggests that candidates are splitting their time between South Carolina and other states.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, will campaign in South Carolina, but she will also have a rally on Thursday in San Antonio and stop in Los Angeles.
In the seven days between Nevada and South Carolina, Sanders will have also hit stops in Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg was scheduled to have events in Florida Wednesday before he fell ill.
After the results in Nevada, Senator Amy Klobuchar went off to Denver and back home to Minnesota to raise money. Next, she chartered a plane to get to North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. She is also spending the last two days before the South Carolina primary in other states.
You get the picture.
What these candidates understand is that South Carolina logistically may not be able to reward a winner in the same way that other early primary states have typically done.
Early states, after all, don’t give winners that many delegates, but they do offer a lot of media buzz and the ability to raise money.
But it is nearly impossible for anyone to raise money, make ads, and purchase ad time over a weekend in a way that could even remotely make a dent in places such as California and Texas, Super Tuesday states. Consider that after the New Hampshire primary there were nearly two weeks for candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar to raise money, hire staff nationally, and get their legs under them. New Hampshire set up the race.
A win in South Carolina might give Biden a political argument to stay in the contest. For Sanders, a win in South Carolina might point to things to come.
But because Bloomberg is sitting out this contest the importance of what happens next week when he is finally on the ballot may matter a great deal more than what happens this weekend.