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Four days that could decide the Democratic nomination

Essential Politics

The next 96 hours could determine the Democratic nomination for president.

Between Saturday and Tuesday, 15 states, a U.S. territory and Americans abroad will hold contests that, together, will distribute 36% of all the delegates to the party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee this summer. The voting begins in South Carolina on Saturday, then spreads from Maine to American Samoa on March 3, the Super Tuesday of this year’s schedule.

For Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has garnered a tie and two wins in the season’s first three contests, the balloting could be his moment. If he wins the majority of these contests, he would have a lead so big that his rivals would be unable to overtake him.

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For Joe Biden, this could be the final few days of a 32-year quest for the presidency in which he has run three times but never won a single primary. Or, it could be the start of a remarkable comeback.

For the remainder of the field, the moment has arrived to prove whether they’re viable as national candidates or simply spoilers staying too long in a race they can’t win.

Let’s take a look at the state of play.

South Carolina: Biden tests his firewall

For weeks, as he suffered through a fourth-place finish in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, Biden clung as a drowning man to a single raft of a thought: Black voters could rescue him in South Carolina.

Black voters typically make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, and Biden has strong ties to them, both because of his eight years as No. 2 to the nation’s first black president and because of his own long-standing connections to black leaders in the state.

After Sanders’ decisive victory last Saturday in Nevada, Biden’s South Carolina firewall began to look dangerously flimsy. Sanders’ campaign stepped up its efforts in the state amid talk that he could defeat Biden there — a loss that likely would be a fatal blow to the former vice president’s hopes.

As the week went on, however, the possibility of a Sanders victory in South Carolina has begun to seem less likely. Biden’s performance in Tuesday’s debate in Charleston drew favorable attention, as Evan Halper, Janet Hook and Arit John wrote. The next day brought the endorsement of the state’s most influential African American politician, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House leadership.

There have now been 10 different publicly released polls of South Carolina voters in the past week. Every one of them has had Biden in the lead. Although his margin over Sanders has varied widely from survey to survey, the most recent polls have mostly shown Biden with a double-digit advantage, with the well respected Monmouth Poll showing him leading Sanders by 20 points.

One factor in Biden’s favor: Tom Steyer‘s rise in South Carolina appears to have stopped. The billionaire California philanthropist and activist hasn’t been a factor in previous races, but he spent very heavily in South Carolina with a message aimed especially at black voters. For a while, he seemed to have potential to eat heavily into Biden’s support, so the more recent stall on his part is good news for the former vice president.

Polls can be wrong, of course, but having 10 wrong in a row would be bizarrely unusual. So far this year, the polling averages have very accurately forecast the results in New Hampshire and Nevada, and several polls accurately caught the results in Iowa. Right now, the average of all the polls shows Biden with about a 2-1 lead over Sanders in South Carolina going into Saturday’s primary.

A victory in South Carolina would hardly solve all of Biden’s problems: Michael Bloomberg, with hundreds of millions to spend, still threatens to steal voters away from Biden in the Super Tuesday states and beyond. Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar continue to compete with him for older, politically moderate voters. Biden remains short of money and vastly outspent in all the major battleground states.

Buttigieg has been making a concerted, although late, effort to win black voters in South Carolina, as Erin Logan wrote.

But a victory nonetheless would give Biden’s campaign at least a chance to fight on and to convince Democratic voters that nominating Sanders poses too great a risk for a party desperate to get rid of President Trump. A win would also generate a comeback narrative for Biden that could attract voters in the Super Tuesday states.

The state that counts the most — and the slowest

None of that, however, seems likely to help Biden in the state with the biggest delegation to the nominating convention, California.

The state’s March 3 primary will distribute 415 delegates, but the most important number to focus on as the vote gets counted is 15%, and Biden appears to be well short of it, according to our final pre-primary poll.

Under the state Democratic party’s rules, candidates can win delegates only if they get 15% of the vote, either statewide or in an individual congressional district.

Right now, several candidates seem likely to fall below that threshold, according to the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Affairs poll that we released Friday.

The survey showed Sanders in first place with 34% and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in second place, 17 points behind. No other candidate crossed the 15% threshold statewide, although Buttigieg and Bloomberg were close. Biden trailed in fifth place.

Latinos, voters who call themselves “very liberal” and young voters provide the three pillars of Sanders’ campaign strength, the poll showed. Melissa Gomez and Melanie Mason took a close look at why Sanders, the oldest candidate in the race, draws such support from the youngest voters in the electorate.

If Sanders and Warren do turn out to be the only candidates to cross the 15% statewide threshold, they would divide up the 114 delegates allocated statewide, with Sanders winning about two-thirds of them. That, alone, would be more than all the delegates that were at stake in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The other candidates likely will still hit 15% in some of the state’s 53 congressional districts so at least the top four won’t be entirely shut out of the hunt for delegates. But Sanders’ support is relatively balanced across the geography of California, suggesting that he’ll likely qualify for delegates in all of the congressional districts.

All told, Sanders could walk away with more than 200 delegates from California, perhaps significantly more. That’s more than 10% of the 1,990 needed to win a first-ballot victory at the convention this summer in Milwaukee.

The one problem for Sanders is that California’s final results won’t be known for weeks because of the long, slow process of counting millions of mail-in ballots. That could dampen whatever momentum boost the Vermont senator might otherwise get from a victory in the state.

California’s long, slow count likely will mean that the commentary on the Super Tuesday results will be heavily shaped by states whose results will be known earlier in the evening, especially three big states that appear up for grabs — Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.

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Running the table or settling for a split?

One way to assess the Super Tuesday contests is to group the 14 states voting that day into buckets.

California, Vermont and Massachusetts form one group — the states with the most liberal Democratic electorates. Sanders appears poised to win California, will surely win his home state and has a strong shot at beating Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her home state judging by the latest polls there. Toss in Maine as another state where Sanders likely will do well.

Minnesota stands alone, Klobuchar’s home state. Only a couple of polls have been done there, and they show her leading, but with Sanders in striking distance. Klobuchar had a moment in the spotlight after a last-minute surge in New Hampshire won her a strong third place there, but her campaign has lagged since. If she loses Minnesota, the path ahead would be very hard.

Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee all have large black populations that play major roles in their Democratic primaries and are all states that have received fairly little attention from the candidates other than Bloomberg, who can afford to advertise heavily everywhere. As Jenny Jarvie wrote from Alabama, Bloomberg’s spending buys him favor in such often-overlooked states, and that could pay off in some victories. Oklahoma and Utah are two other states that have been mostly overlooked by the candidates.

That leaves four states that have gotten the most attention from the candidates: Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and Colorado.

All four are states where Democrats have done well recently by building support in suburban areas.

In Virginia, the Washington suburbs delivered massively for Democrats in last year’s state elections, giving the party control of the legislature for the first time in decades. In Texas, Democrats picked up congressional seats in the Houston and Dallas suburbs in 2018 as part of the drive that gave them a majority in the House.

Suburban support provided the edge that elected Roy Cooper as North Carolina’s governor in 2016. And the growing Democratic vote in the Denver suburbs is responsible for turning that state increasingly blue and giving Democrats hopes of winning the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Cory Gardner.

Many Democratic strategists fear Sanders as the nominee would endanger the party’s recent gains in suburban areas, perhaps enough to put the party’s House majority at risk. If Sanders can win several of these states, he’d not only garner a big lead in delegates, he might also quiet some of those worries. Conversely, if he loses them, that could offset his victories in the more liberal states.

Right now, polls show Sanders in striking distance in all four states. They will be key to watch on Tuesday night.

A viral threat to Trump

The president has enjoyed several good weeks since his acquittal on impeachment charges in the Senate last month. But the spread of the coronavirus has created serious problems for him on two fronts.

First, as Don Lee wrote, the risk of a recession has increased as the virus has disrupted supply chains and stalled production globally. How serious the recession threat is remains uncertain, but for Trump it’s a big worry. The strong economy has been his biggest argument for reelection, and the stock market’s plunge this week has already taken some of the shine off his economic boasts.

The other political risk for Trump is that a botched government response to the spread of the virus would surely amplify concerns about his administration’s competence. Trump mistrusts expert opinion and prizes loyalty over experience. That’s left him with few officials who can be counted on to handle a crisis.

At his news conference Wednesday, he sought to tamp down fears, naming Vice President Mike Pence to lead the government’s response, but the government health officials who appeared with him offered warnings that contrasted with the White House’s breezy assurances.

At a congressional hearing Thursday, lawmakers pressed health officials about preparations for a possible epidemic in the U.S.

In 2005, President George W. Bush learned how badly an administration can be hurt by public perception of a bungled response to a disaster — Hurricane Katrina, in that case. Trump is acutely aware of that precedent, but whether the people around him can avoid repeating it is as unknown as the virus’s ultimate cost.

It’s one more unpredictable element to add to a volatile political year.

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