Biden’s Super Tuesday Test: Defending the South

Sanders vs. Biden may be determined by who breaks through on the other’s turf

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina re-established him as the main challenger to Bernie Sanders.

— There is some indication their battle could break on regional lines, with Sanders fighting for inroads in the South and Biden for access to the North. Biden’s task on Tuesday is protecting the six Southern states from incursions by Sanders (and perhaps others, including the unproven Michael Bloomberg).

— Sanders will lead in delegates after Super Tuesday. The question is by how much.

— Texas, both Southern and Western, is the most interesting state to watch on Tuesday.

The Sanders vs. Biden regional divide

From the Civil War through the Great Depression, the state-level American political lines largely mirrored those of the devastating war, with the South voting solidly Democratic and the North voting largely Republican. Due to the region’s smaller population, the South/the Democrats could only win when they made inroads into the North. For instance, Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat who won presidential victories between 1860 and 1912; in his two, stand-alone victories, he carried Indiana (a northern state with southern lineage) and New York (New York City had a Democratic machine and was a very reluctant participant in the Civil War).

When Republicans won Southern states, like in 1920 and 1928, it was generally as part of huge GOP blowouts.

Democrats failed to capture the presidency in years like 1896 and 1900, when agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan expanded the Democrats’ Southern enclave to cover some of the Great Plains and Interior West but nonetheless did not come particularly close to the White House. A Republican split in 1912 allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency in an Electoral College landslide; four years later when facing a unified Republican Party, Wilson narrowly hung on by sweeping the South and almost the entire West, while also winning the big Midwestern prizes of Missouri and Ohio. But the Democrats only truly became a national party with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which allowed the Democrats to finally secure more strong bases of consistent support in the North.

So why the peek into the history hutch? Because through four contests in the Democratic primary, one can begin to see a North versus South split emerging between the two candidates who at this point appear to have a shot to win the nomination before the Democratic National Convention: Bernie Sanders, the candidate of the North, and Joe Biden, the candidate of the South.

It may be that, just like in the post-Civil War era, one would rather be the candidate of the North in this race than the South, particularly if one grafts the West onto the Northern coalition, as Sanders is threatening to do.

Biden’s test, then, is not only to sweep the Southern states that vote on Tuesday, but then to make inroads as the contest shifts to the Midwest and the Northeast.

Biden’s smashing victory in South Carolina resuscitated his flagging campaign and re-ignited major regional questions about Sanders, who lost the nomination in 2016 in good measure due to the destruction of his campaign in the South. Hillary Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates at the end of the 2016 nominating season was built in the 11 states of the traditionally-defined South: Sanders battled her to approximate parity in the rest of the country.

In order to prove his greater strength in a much larger field this year, Sanders at least must have wanted to compete in South Carolina. Based on a nearly 30-point loss, it’s hard to argue that he did.

However, there may be something encouraging to Sanders about his big loss. Hypothetically, Sanders’ momentum from his strong start to February, particularly Nevada, could have helped him do better in South Carolina. That this did not happen is perhaps an indicator that we should now be cautious about Biden enjoying a big surge from South Carolina.

The regional split in the Democratic Party between North and South has a lot to do with African-American voters, the base of the party. While there are significant blocs of black voters in many Northern states, the states with the most significant black voting shares are generally all Southern (particularly if one includes Southern-adjacent Maryland and the District of Columbia). While Sanders wins some support with black voters, Biden dominated with blacks in South Carolina, where the electorate was close to 60% black, and he won about 60% of these voters.

Let’s take a closer look at the South Carolina results and then consider what might happen on Super Tuesday. The most interesting place, and the state where Biden’s Southern defenses are the shakiest, is the place where the South meets the West: Texas.

South Carolina

Overall, considering Biden’s nearly 30 percentage point win, the state map was rather monochromatic — the former vice president carried all 46 of the state’s counties, as well as upwards of 90% of the precincts. Biden fell just shy of a majority of the statewide vote in a large field, so he enjoyed significant margins throughout the state. Map 1 shows Biden’s share, 48.4%, compared to the combined rest of the field, which took the remaining 51.6%:

Map 1: Biden vs non-Biden candidates in South Carolina

Not surprisingly, Biden’s strength was most noticeable in the 6th Congressional District; a majority-black district, its congressman, Rep. Jim Clyburn, provided a critical assist to the Biden campaign. Likewise, Biden took a majority of the vote in SC-5 and SC-7, which are both close to 30% black (and much more so in a Democratic primary environment). In the 2016 primary, Sanders showed some strength in the Appalachian-flavored Upstate region, and was largely able to build on that this time. In 2016, Sanders fared best in SC-4, which includes the duo of Greenville and Spartanburg — this year, SC-4 gave Biden his poorest showing of the state’s seven districts.

Broadly speaking, most of the counties Biden took majorities in also support Democratic candidates in general elections, while the red counties in Map 1 largely vote Republican (though there are some exceptions, like blue-trending Charleston County). In other southern Super Tuesday contests — such as North Carolina and Alabama — South Carolina may offer something of a preview, in that regard.

Perhaps some encouraging news for Sanders is that despite his 19.9% share of the statewide vote in South Carolina, he was consistently the voter’s second choice (Map 2).

Map 2: Second-place finishers in South Carolina

Tom Steyer, who invested especially heavily in the state, saw some success in rural counties, and Pete Buttigieg had pockets of strength in some suburban neighborhoods of Charleston, but Sanders was the runner-up in every congressional district. (Steyer and Buttigieg left the race after South Carolina.) Similarly, Sanders was the only non-Biden candidate to reach viability in every district — in the instance of SC-6, his 15.7% share was just a few notches above the 15% threshold. In other words, despite a relatively poor showing for Sanders, he could have come out of South Carolina with even fewer pledged delegates than he ultimately received.

The road ahead

Table 1 shows the states that vote on Super Tuesday, along with their delegate counts. A little over a third of all the pledged delegates available during the nominating season will be awarded as part of Super Tuesday, although the precise calculations in some states won’t be known for weeks in at least California (where mail votes trickle in after Election Day and the counting typically takes a considerable amount of time).

Table 1: Super Tuesday Democratic contests

Realistically, the question for Super Tuesday is not whether Sanders will come out of Super Tuesday leading — he will — but rather by how much. MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki suggested some ranges on Sunday: A great scenario for Biden, Kornacki estimated, would have him coming out of Super Tuesday just about 60 delegates behind Sanders; a great one for Sanders would have him up by 400 delegates over Biden.

Decision Desk HQ, with whom we are calculating delegate counts throughout the primary season, is also producing a Democratic forecasting model along with the polling and research firm 0ptimus and news website OZY. Their projections for the Super Tuesday states, and what the delegate math might look like based on those projections, are shown in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2: DDHQ/0ptimus/OZY Super Tuesday forecast

Notes: Forecast is as of 8 p.m. on Sunday evening; for more details on how the forecast is created, see here.

Table 3: DDHQ/0ptimus/OZY Super Tuesday Delegate forecast

These projections show something of a middle ground between the best- and worst-case scenarios for Sanders and Biden, with Sanders coming out of Super Tuesday with an overall delegate lead of a little over 150 — this forecast, based on the average vote share of 10,000 model simulations, was re-run Sunday night after Buttigieg’s announcement that he was leaving the race.

The forecast gives the greatest chance, 42%, to no candidate winning a majority of delegates during the nominating season, with Sanders at a 38% chance to win a majority and Biden at just 16%.

Clearly, there are a lot of x-factors here.

One of the biggest comes in the most valuable state voting, California. Sanders’ great advantage is that he has consistently led polls there, with some even showing Sanders polling in the mid-30s with no other candidate reaching the crucial 15% threshold required to win a portion of the state’s 144 statewide delegates.

While Sanders still seems set to win the Golden State, Biden’s late momentum should be enough to carry him over the 15% threshold, particularly because despite lots of early voting in California, it seems like a relatively high number of voters have held back their ballots and can take South Carolina into account before voting.

On Sunday, Politico reported that some strategists in California believe that a higher-than-normal number of reliable Democratic voters haven’t voted yet, but history suggests they will. Overall, the firm Political Data Inc. reported as of Sunday that about 1.4 million Democrats have returned their ballots so far. Turnout in both 2008 and 2016 was a shade over 5 million total votes, so even when one considers that many of the 650,000 non-Democrats/non-Republicans who have voted may be participating in the Democratic primary, it stands to reason that the majority of the vote, perhaps a strong majority depending on turnout, is still out. Both Biden and Elizabeth Warren are polling ahead of the 15% threshold in California, so she seems likely to be a factor there too.

Staying out west, Sanders also seems likely to win Colorado and Utah, with the main question being how much other candidates eat into his delegate share from those states. Buttigieg’s exit from the race might allow others to more easily hit 15% delegate thresholds, although it’s not immediately clear what the fallout from his exit might be: Biden could end up benefiting the most, but polling data on Buttigieg voters’ second choices does not paint a consistently clear picture (scanning Twitter Sunday night, one could basically choose his or her own adventure based on the numbers floating around). Biden did get a little bit closer to Sanders in the forecast cited above after Buttigieg was removed.

Polling has indicated that Warren is likelier than not to lose her home state of Massachusetts to Sanders. If she does not win Massachusetts, she seems unlikely to win any state.

It is possible that only Sanders and Biden will win states on Super Tuesday, although Amy Klobuchar looks likelier than not to hold her home state of Minnesota against Sanders. If Biden hits 15% statewide in either Massachusetts or Minnesota, it will be a victory for him and might be a sign that he is gaining some national momentum from South Carolina.

In the longer term, Biden needs to demonstrate viability in the Midwest — something his performance in Iowa distinctly did not show. Some of the major prizes coming in the next couple of weeks are in the Midwest, specifically Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. If Biden wants to take the lead over Sanders, he needs to pick one or more of those states off, although Biden also seems very likely to be bolstered by Florida and Georgia later in March as well (but after those states vote, the South will largely be done voting).

Here’s where the North vs. South dynamic again comes into play: We likely won’t see Biden win anywhere outside the old Confederacy on Tuesday, but some signs of life outside that region would perhaps be encouraging going forward. The South is important, but it isn’t enough without strength elsewhere — whether we’re talking general elections from the distant past or primary ones now.

Michael Bloomberg remains a wild card. Biden’s big victory in South Carolina came at a bad time for the free-spending former New York City mayor because it re-established Biden as the main alternative to Sanders — a role Bloomberg has been trying to take for himself.

We don’t expect Bloomberg to win any states on Tuesday, although he may surprise in a state or two where there isn’t much polling data and where black voters aren’t quite as numerous as some other Southern states, like Arkansas or Southern-adjacent Oklahoma. Given that Bloomberg’s support is built on the ephemeral effects of carpet-bombing the airwaves, his backers seem susceptible to last-minute persuasion from other candidates, particularly Biden as he basks in the glow of his Palmetto State win. Yes, we know that Biden does not have much money or ground operation, but we wonder how much that really matters in this highly fluid race.

Despite some polling that argues to the contrary, we’d be surprised if Biden lost North Carolina or Virginia. Remember: Biden South, Sanders North: Any Sanders victory in the Old Confederacy represents for him what would be, to borrow a sports cliché, a road win (like what Duke tried and failed to do in a men’s basketball game in Charlottesville this weekend — sorry, we couldn’t help mentioning that).

Despite the South Carolina blowout, the exit poll did indicate that Sanders narrowly carried white voters without a four-year college degree over Biden, although the vote was split among several other candidates. If Sanders is able to win Tennessee — which the forecast suggests is extremely close — or another non-Texas Southern state, support among those kinds of voters might explain why. Watch the Appalachian areas of western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northern Alabama, as well as the ancestrally Democratic “Little Dixie” region of eastern Oklahoma, for clues on where these white voters may be going. Buttigieg’s exit probably puts the voting patterns of these kinds of places even more in flux.

One of the surest bets on the board is Biden winning Alabama, a state that is similar to South Carolina in that it will also have a majority-black electorate. (Biden also should win a landslide in Mississippi on March 10).

This brings is to the last state: Texas. It’s not only the second-largest source of delegates in the nation, but it’s also probably the hardest individual state to call. Polls, in aggregate, point to Sanders: He leads by six points in the RealClearPolitics average. But the Decision Desk HQ/0ptimus/OZY forecast actually favors Biden there narrowly, as does the FiveThirtyEight forecast following Buttigieg’s departure from the race. We think the forecasters’ models as opposed to the poll aggregates are closer to reality based on South Carolina.

Texas, like California, likely already has a significant amount of the vote in, but perhaps not as much as one might think. On the Democratic side, about 1 million votes have been cast early. That’s more than two-thirds of the total 2016 turnout. However, raw vote totals in the two primaries held so far, New Hampshire and South Carolina, were much more similar to higher-turnout 2008 than lower-turnout 2016. The Democratic turnout in Texas in 2008 was close to 2.9 million votes. Texas also is a fast-growing state in transition — still Republican, but becoming more competitive, meaning that there likely are many lapsed Republicans who want to participate in the Democratic primary, and there’s also no competitive GOP presidential primary to attract GOP attention (although there are down-ballot primaries). So a majority or more of the vote may very well still be out, even if overall turnout doesn’t reach the 2008 heights.

Election Day votes will be another good test for Biden’s momentum, to the extent it exists. But if Sanders is once again strong with Hispanic voters in Texas — like he was in Nevada — that could really help him and perhaps even carry him to victory (Hispanic voters are a major factor in Texas, but not in other Southern Super Tuesday states).

Here’s where Biden finds himself disadvantaged by the South vs. North dichotomy, because the West plays a role here too, and that may be Sanders’ strongest region. Texas, a dividing line between South and West, will test both of their appeal.