The Southern Primaries Buried Sanders Last Time. Will 2020 Be Any Different?

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

After underestimating Bernie Sanders’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination for much of the cycle, one wonders how long until the pendulum swings back to overestimating Sanders’s chances of winning the nomination.

It’s become common to hear that the Democratic National Committee “rigged” the primary process in favor of Bernie Sanders and against Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign’s financial authority over the DNC was an absurd conflict of interest, the party’s superdelegates overwhelmingly preferred her, the 2016 Democratic primary debate schedule was ridiculous — a grand total of four debates before the Iowa caucuses, three of them held on Saturdays and Sundays — and clearly most of the DNC staff had a not-so-hidden preference for Clinton. But that doesn’t quite mean that there was a likely Sanders victory in play, snatched away by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the rest of the committee, and replaced with a Clinton win.

Yes, Sanders came within a few coin flips in Iowa, won New Hampshire by nearly 20 percentage points, and kept it pretty close in Nevada. There was indeed a point early on where it really looked like Hillary Clinton could stumble as a front runner in two Democratic presidential primaries, eight years apart.

But Hillary Clinton just crushed Sanders in South Carolina, 73.5 percent to 26 percent. And once the race moved on to Super Tuesday, with a heavy slate of southern states, Clinton racked up a slew of big wins south of the Mason-Dixon line: almost 78 percent in Alabama, 66 percent in Arkansas, 71 percent in Georgia, 66 percent in Tennessee, 65 percent in Texas, and 64 percent in Virginia. Sanders had some nice wins in Colorado (59 percent), Minnesota (almost 62 percent), Oklahoma (almost 52 percent), and his home state of Vermont (86 percent). But one of the clear patterns of 2016 was that Sanders could not win Democratic contests in the South.

As the race continued, Sanders kept matching solid wins in the Midwest against huge losses to Clinton elsewhere, and Clinton steadily expanded her delegate lead. For someone who started the race as an obscure long-shot running with the political label “socialist,” Sanders blew up expectations. But Clinton kept winning by enough margins here and there to have the nomination locked up — with the help of superdelegates — by early June. Nor is it fair to argue that the nomination was some sort of defiance of primary voters’ will; when all was said and done, 16.9 million people voted for Clinton in the primaries, and 13.2 million voted for Sanders.

It is not hard to envision a similar scenario this cycle, with Joe Biden in the Clinton role. Sanders has a good shot of winning Iowa — maybe by a lot! — but Biden’s probably going to finish no worse than a respectable second and it’s possible only Sanders and Biden finish above the 15 percent threshold for delegates. Things look good for Sanders in New Hampshire, too, although once again, Biden’s probably finishing a respectable second. Biden’s lead in Nevada might be dwindling, but it’s hard to see the former vice president tumbling too far. And then there’s South Carolina, where most of the polling (with one glaring exception) has Biden ahead by double digits.

(The four states are all seen as roughly equally important, but the number of delegates at stake varies: Iowa has 49, New Hampshire has 33, Nevada 48, and South Carolina has 63. A big win in the Palmetto State does a candidate a lot more good than a big win in the Granite State.)

Now check out this year’s Super Tuesday states and territories: Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, California (494 delegates!), Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina (122 delegates!), Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas (261 delegates!), Utah, Vermont, Virginia (124 delegates). If Biden is the preferred candidate of Southern Democrats, he’s walking away with wins in a bunch of high delegate states.

Once again, Sanders has a shot at winning the nomination, but if he can’t win primaries in Southern states, hitting the threshold for the nomination gets a lot harder for him.

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