The South Carolina primary will reveal which candidates can cut it with a key Democratic constituency — right before the race for delegates kicks into overdrive.
The state, which votes on Saturday, February 29, is the fourth of the early contests and marks the first major test of black voters’ support. It’s the place former Vice President Joe Biden is betting on to save his flailing campaign, and the one where Sen. Bernie Sanders could further establish his strength as a frontrunner.
It’s also a key inflection point. The field is still crowded — only three lower-tier candidates have dropped out since Iowa, when voters first started weighing in on the Democratic primary.
Just three days before Super Tuesday, when more than a third of delegates will be awarded, South Carolina will hint at which candidates have long-term staying power. For some, like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who have struggled to build support with black voters, it will signal whether they’ve been able to make any inroads with a more diverse electorate. For others, like billionaire activist Tom Steyer, it will indicate if his massive investments in the state will actually translate to votes.
Polls close at 7 pm ET, and given the closeness of the race, results aren’t expected until later in the evening. Vox has live results, powered by our friends at Decision Desk:
South Carolina’s importance, much like that of its other early counterparts, isn’t really about the delegates the winner will earn. There are 54 pledged delegates at stake Saturday, comprising just over 1 percent of the national delegate haul. Its impact, instead, is about the momentum it bestows.
Since it became an early state in 2008, South Carolina has been an important bellwether. Not only does it set the tone for Super Tuesday, it also typically foreshadows how a series of Southern states — with similar demographics — could go.
Biden is banking on this dynamic in order to revive his campaign: He has a strong base among older black voters and has long been the favorite in South Carolina. In recent weeks, however, as Sanders has established himself nationally and Steyer has cut into Biden’s black support, the former vice president’s margins have narrowed significantly.
While Biden is still expected to win the state, he’s not poised for the landslide that was once expected, an outcome that could prove concerning for his attempts to secure the nomination. A substantive victory by Biden, however, could allow him to more directly take on Sanders going into Super Tuesday.
“One of the hard resets will happen after South Carolina. I think it will be a very defining moment and a game-change moment,” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright recently told Vox.