South Carolina is do-or-die for candidates not named Bernie Sanders

But make no mistake: South Carolina is the last chance for the non-Sanders candidates to turn the tide of this primary campaign.

The math here is simple, folks. Sanders holds a 10+ point advantage in the national polls at this point. The only other candidates who recently have been polling at 15% or above are former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
If that holds true through Super Tuesday, Sanders would be well on his way to a delegate plurality (if not majority). The Super Tuesday states are largely representative of the nation as a whole. With a 15% threshold to win delegates across states and congressional districts, Sanders would likely accumulate north of 40% of the delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday.

Winning 45% of the delegates on Super Tuesday will allow Sanders to build a large delegate lead. Biden and Bloomberg would be well behind him (probably less than half his delegate haul). Most of the other candidates would score only a minimal amount of delegates on Super Tuesday.

It would be very difficult for the other candidates to plot comebacks, given how many remaining delegates are up for grabs after Super Tuesday. Just 62% of delegates will be left on the table, which isn’t a lot when you realize that Sanders will likely have a wave of momentum following Super Tuesday and Democrats allot their delegates proportionally.

Someone who isn’t Sanders would need to start winning contests by large margins to become competitive. But if the current political environment holds, that strikes me as unlikely.

The good news for the candidates not named Sanders is that South Carolina stands in the way of Sanders and a Super Tuesday rout. Sanders could win the Palmetto State, but he isn’t ahead.

The leader in the South Carolina polls is Biden. His advantage has shrunk, though it still stands at about 10 points in the average poll.

A Biden win could give the non-Sanders candidates new life. We’ve already seen how the polls changed after Sanders did well in the first three contests. The polls could shift again if Biden were to emerge victorious in South Carolina.

Indeed, go back to the 2008 Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton held about a 10-point lead in the national primary polls against Barack Obama before South Carolina voted. His large victory there turned the primary race into essentially a tie before Super Tuesday. Then Clinton and Obama came away from that Super Tuesday with a near-equal share of delegates.

Of course, there are a number of differences between this year and 2008. The time frame is more compressed between South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Additionally, Biden’s margin in South Carolina is likely to be considerably less than Obama’s near-30-point win.

Still, the analogy is important because it shows that it isn’t too late for the non-Sanders candidates.

If a non-Sanders candidate (almost certainly Biden) can win in South Carolina, Sanders’ Super Tuesday pathway becomes cloudier. He’ll likely lose some points nationally. Someone else will pick up some ground (probably whoever wins South Carolina). The delegate math becomes dicier.

Ultimately, even a South Carolina win for someone other than Sanders may not prove enough. Sanders would still be favored to win a plurality of delegates overall.

It would at least be a race, however. Sanders would not be an almost-certain winner.

Of course, if Sanders were to win South Carolina, Biden would likely be forced out of the race, and Sanders would have an even clearer path to the nomination.

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