How Momentum From South Carolina Changed the Delegate Primary

The race has been reshuffled into a contest between Sanders and Biden.

Back in December, Ella Nilsen made a helpful distinction between the Democratic primaries in the first four states and all of the rest. Because so few delegates are at stake, she suggested that the early states were the “momentum primaries.”

The reason that is important is because momentum is all about either winning or exceeding expectations. The debacle in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire didn’t produce much momentum because both states basically came down to ties between Sanders and Buttigieg. With a clear victory in Nevada, Sanders gained the momentum. But that was soon overshadowed by Biden’s overwhelming victory in South Carolina, which is one of the reasons why I suggested quite a while ago that the latter would be the most important of the early states.

With his 28-point win in South Carolina, combined with the fact that both Steyer and Buttigieg have dropped out of the race, Biden goes into the Super Tuesday contests with all of the momentum. While that falls far short of guaranteeing that he will be the nominee, the contours of this primary have basically come down to a contest between Sanders and the anti-Sanders candidate. Biden has put himself in the driver’s seat to be the anti-Sanders choice.

As Nilsen suggested, we now head into the delegate primary and, at this point, the future of the race is being reshuffled. Nate Cohn isn’t the only one hearing things like this:

When Cohn refers to his “friends out West,” he is probably talking about the big enchilada on Super Tuesday: California. Polls had previously indicated that Sanders had a huge lead in that state. He probably still does. But this is where it is important to keep in mind that we have now shifted from the momentum primary to the delegate primary. Because Democrats allocate delegates on a proportional basis, winning or losing a primary takes a back seat to how many delegates a candidate wins.

Prior to his win in South Carolina, Biden was polling under the 15 percent threshold to garner any delegates in California. That is now extremely unlikely. As Politico reports, California Democrats, who tend to vote early by mail, seem to have held back in returning their ballots in order to watch what happens in the momentum primary and get a better sense of who emerged as the anti-Sanders candidate.

Paul Mitchell, an elections expert who has tracked the number of returned vote-by-mail California ballots through Friday, told POLITICO he’s seen a significant drop-off among Democratic voters from the past two California presidential primaries to date . And the decline in returned ballots so far is occurring among the most dedicated voters: Those who have participated in the past five elections.

“People in Super Tuesday states and California, in particular, are not returning their ballots yet,” said Danielle Cendejas, a Democratic strategist in California whose firm did campaign mail for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “They’re waiting for a signal, and I think this is a signal. If you were debating between which of the Democrats who aren’t Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren to throw your hat behind, you’re probably going Joe Biden’s way.”

The upshot is that Sanders will probably still win California, but he is much less likely to gain an insurmountable lead in the number of delegates.

Other states where Sanders and Biden will likely split the number of delegates include Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. Prior to the South Carolina primary, the state in which Sanders had the biggest lead was Colorado, where Biden has been running a distant fourth behind Warren and Bloomberg. That could be the state least affected by the South Carolina primary.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Warren’s home state votes on Super Tuesday. Regardless of who wins in Massachusetts, she will likely garner a significant number of delegates, reducing the chances that either Biden or Sanders will get a big majority. The same might have been said of Klobuchar in Minnesota. But she dropped out of the race on Monday and plans to endorse Biden.

Finally, there are the Super Tuesday states with much smaller delegate hauls that almost no one is paying any attention to. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont. The only thing for certain in those states is that Sanders is likely to win an overwhelming victory in his home state of Vermont, whereas Biden will probably repeat his South Carolina numbers in Alabama.

In the weeks after Super Tuesday, there are still some large states with a lot of delegates who will hold their contests, including Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, and Ohio. To the extent that the primary has become a two-person race by then, candidates like Warren and Bloomberg (?) will probably have dropped out, reshuffling the race once again.

On Tuesday night, we can expect that most of the media will still be focusing on who wins the primary in each state. But keep in mind that the momentum primary is now over as we pivot to the delegate primary. While that one is far from decided, it is now destined to become a two-way race between Biden and Sanders.

This article has been updated since Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.