Bernie Sanders’ campaign is bracing for a loss in South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary Saturday.
“I wouldn't focus on the margin because it's not going to be that close,” Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster, said Tuesday of Saturday’s primary. “But we're going to make it as close as we can. ... If we had three more months, we could close the gap more.”
Considering what the U.S. senator is up against – a popular, well known frontrunner in Hillary Clinton; more conservative Democratic voters; zero name recognition at the start of the race – Sanders has done well to narrow Clinton’s lead, his campaign aides say.
Playing the long game in a race that could go until June, Sanders’ campaign is banking on proving it can win some African-American voters in South Carolina to build momentum in later voting states, aides say.
Considering Clinton is “one of the most famous political names in the country,” Sanders gaining support among black voters would “bode well for how we'll perform in states elsewhere in the country that have high numbers of African-Americans,” Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs said.
But, with white S.C. Democrats split between the candidates, black voters consistently have favored Clinton.
In what one political scientist says is good strategy, Sanders will turn his focus Wednesday to other states with later nominating contests. Sanders will not return to the Palmetto State until Friday, when he will take a swing through the state.
That strategy makes sense for Sanders’ campaign, banking on success after March 1 – called Super Tuesday because of the flurry of voting that begins in Southern and Western states, said Furman political scientist Danielle Vinson. “They're behind by a good bit in South Carolina, and they're worried about that crush of primaries that come right after South Carolina.”
But Sanders’ two-day absence from South Carolina could hurt his efforts to drive the turnout he needs to minimize his loss here, Vinson said. If Sanders could keep his S.C. loss to single digits, he could stay within striking distance of Clinton and keep going in the nominating contest, she said.
Sanders’ success has been built on the enthusiasm of young voters, Vinson added. “The only way to build on that is if the candidate himself shows up.”
Meanwhile, despite her double-digit lead, Clinton has S.C. events stacked up this week – from Tuesday to Friday – focusing on African-American voters, expected to cast half the ballots in Saturday’s primary.
Clinton’s schedule is aimed at sealing the deal with Palmetto State Democrats, Vinson said. “She knows where her base is, and she wants to make sure they get out and vote.”
Sanders campaign: Focus is SC
Clinton’s schedule is in keeping with her promise not to take any vote for granted – a mantra of aides from the start of the campaign and an effort to erase her 2008 S.C. loss to Barack Obama.
Despite Sanders’ two-day absence from the state, his campaign says the senator has not abandoned South Carolina, following his narrow loss to Clinton Saturday in Nevada.
The campaign has more than 160 part-time staffers – earning Sanders’ proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour – and about 50 full-time staff members. Surrogates for Sanders – Jane Sanders and Danny Glover – also are campaigning in the state this week.
“Bernie has said, time and time again, that Democrats in the past have been mistaken to target only the so-called ‘battleground states,’ ” Briggs said.
“He has spent a lot of time in South Carolina over the past several months,” Briggs added. “He has gotten to know people all across the state, and they've gotten to know him better. ... The more people get to know him, the better they like him.”
Sanders’ focus, Briggs said, “is South Carolina but also being alert to the reality of the calendar. Certainly, Secretary Clinton is aware” of the same challenge, he added, noting Clinton was absent from the state Sunday and Monday.
Sanders and Clinton were in Columbia Tuesday for a CNN town hall forum.
But on Wednesday, Sanders will hold a rally in Kansas City. Missouri Democrats vote March 15. On Thursday, he has a campaign event scheduled for Tulsa, Okla., where voters cast ballots March 1.
“We just can't spend the whole week in South Carolina,” said Sanders’ pollster Tulchin, adding the senator must campaign aggressively in other states where he has a better shot at winning. “That's the challenge of the calendar. It's not a simple or easy task, but there is definitely a path for us to be successful and do well, and continue the progress that we've made so far.”
Focus beyond Super Tuesday
Step 1 for Sanders is surviving Super Tuesday, where polling “heavily favors” Clinton, the pollster said, adding the campaign hopes to peel off some March 1 wins.
For example, Sanders has a 75-point lead in his home state of Vermont. He also leads Clinton by about 4 points in Massachusetts. In seven other March 1 states, however, Clinton has double-digit leads.
After Super Tuesday, Sanders’ goal is to win in states with caucus-style nominating contests or where his record of opposing trade deals should favor the senator, Tulchin said.
Sanders pledged Monday in a Massachusetts speech that he’s prepared for “a slog” of state-by-state contests through June.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said he thinks Sanders will keep going through the end of the primaries – even if he has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in Philadelphia.
“His goal is to last all the way to June,” Sabato said. “And he will keep getting those smaller donations so he can keep going state-by-state to keep accumulating delegates.”
Armed with a fair share of delegates, Sanders can try to pull the Democratic platform – and by extension, Clinton – more to the left, pressing for higher taxes on the wealthy, free college education and restricting free trade, Sabato said. “He won't get everything he wants, of course, but he'll have some non-negotiable demands, to start with.”
Sanders aimed at the ‘long slog’
Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, a Sanders supporter, says an S.C. loss of 10 percentage points or less would be a huge boost for the senator.
Harpootlian predicts the Democratic contest likely will come down to winning over superdelegates, who can vote for any candidate regardless of the outcome of their state’s contest.
In 2008, Barack Obama was able to switch enough superdelegates from Clinton to seal the nomination, he said.
At this stage, Clinton has 52 pledged delegates to 51 for Sanders, delegates distributed proportionately based on how the candidates performed in earlier states. However, Clinton has 451 superdelegates to Sanders’ 19, according to the New York Times.
But that deficit can be overcome, said spokesman Briggs.“We're at the beginning of this process,” he said. “It's a long slog.”
Upcoming Democratic contests
Upcoming Democratic primaries and caucuses, and the leader, according to Real Clear Politics, where there has been polling this year:
Super Tuesday — March 1
Texas primary: 252 delegates, Clinton +22
Georgia primary: 116 delegates, Clinton +43
Massachusetts primary: 116 delegates, Sanders +4
Virginia primary: 110 delegates, Clinton +17
Minnesota caucus: 93 delegates, Clinton +26
Colorado caucus: 79 delegates
Tennessee primary: 76 delegates, Clinton +23
Alabama primary: 60 delegates, Clinton +28
Oklahoma primary: 42 delegates, Clinton +14
Arkansas primary: 37 delegates, Clinton +29
Vermont primary: 26 delegates, Sanders +75