The last time Sen. Bernie Sanders ran for president, he had a pithy phrase for what happened to his campaign when it arrived, in his words, in “the deep South:” it got “murdered.”
The question now, after Sanders’ big loss in South Carolina, is whether the South is set to play an outsized role in slowing the senator’s momentum to the Democratic nomination by delivering the same series of defeats he suffered there in 2016.
Of the 14 states and one territory poised to vote in Super Tuesday on March 3, Sanders looks weakest in the south, especially compared to his strong positions in California, Colorado, Maine, and his home state of Vermont.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina on Saturday suggests strength below the Mason-Dixon line, and renewed momentum right before the state-by-state race transforms into a diverse, widespread, multi-state contest. As morning broke on Super Tuesday, FiveThirtyEight’s polling models gave Biden the edge in all seven southern states scheduled to vote — while Sanders led everywhere else.
“The South has been, and remains, difficult for Sanders,” Stuart Rothenberg, the veteran political analyst, told VICE News on Monday. “I’ve been assuming over the last 48 hours that Biden’s strength among South Carolina voters will show up elsewhere in the south.”
Sanders’ early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire vaunted him into national front-runner status, and polls suggest he remains in a strong position to take home a majority of Super Tuesday delegates. But Biden’s win in South Carolina marked his first primary victory ever and showed that, despite his poor initial showings in early states, he remains a force to be reckoned with.
And Biden’s comeback arrived at a crucial moment: right before 1,357 delegates, a third of the total, go up for grabs in a single day. Southern states account for almost half of all the delegates to be awarded on Super Tuesday.
Importantly, South Carolina has traditionally served as a bellwether for other southern primary states — especially those with similar political and demographic profiles. Biden won 61% of South Carolina’s black voters, a group he has repeatedly called a crucial component of his base. He’s been polling well in other southern states with large black populations, too, including Super Tuesday’s Alabama and North Carolina.
However, unlike in 2016, Sanders looks poised to win the most important state in play on Tuesday: California.
But it could take a while for Bernie to put such a victory in the bank. Bernie’s ability to claim success in California, and harness the resulting momentum, could be delayed for days or even weeks thanks to California’s expected slow vote counting. That could provide an important window for Biden to cement his “comeback” narrative in the media, as southern states’ results roll out first.
“Bernie’s problem tomorrow is that a lot of his strength is in late-reporting states, and a lot of the narrative will be written early in the evening. That might be: ‘The Biden comeback continues,’” Rothenberg said.
But it’s not yet clear that Biden’s crushing victory in South Carolina will be easy to repeat in other states, even throughout the South. Biden benefited from a late-breaking, passionate endorsement from South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn, a towering figure in South Carolina politics. And it followed right after a debate in which Sanders took an inordinate amount of incoming friendly fire.
What’s more, Biden didn’t manage to lay down an extensive campaign infrastructure in the Super Tuesday states compared with Sanders, and now faces a scramble to catch up.
Still, his victory in South Carolina was so convincing it helped knock other moderates out of the race: former South Bend Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg, billionaire long-shot Tom Steyer and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But Biden still faces a well-financed challenge from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent vast sums on advertising while trying to capitalize on Biden’s early dip in the polls.
One big question will be whether Biden’s newfound momentum from South Carolina will begin to bring moderate voters together around his campaign as their best chance to disrupt the Sanders juggernaut — perhaps slowing the momentum Bloomberg built when it looked like Biden was down for the count.
Perhaps no Super Tuesday state remains more closely-watched than Texas, the second-biggest prize of the day after California, and a state where recent polls show Sanders ahead with Biden and Bloomberg in hot pursuit. The Democratic electorate in Texas includes a large number of hispanics, a group that went for Sanders in a 51% landslide in Nevada.
A fresh poll of Texas voters by the Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler released Monday morning put Sanders ahead with 29%, followed by Bloomberg with 21% and Biden with 19%.
The states voting Super Tuesday, and their delegate counts, are:
California — 415
Texas — 228
North Carolina — 110
Virginia — 99
Massachusetts — 91
Minnesota — 75
Colorado — 67
Tennessee — 64
Alabama — 52
Oklahoma — 37
Arkansas — 31
Utah — 29
Maine — 24
Vermont — 16
American Samoa — 6
Cover: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a rally for Nevada Democratic candidates at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts on October 25, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. In-person early voting for the midterm elections in Nevada continues through November 2. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)