Joe Biden just won South Carolina by a margin three times larger than even his most optimistic fans were hoping for. Pete Buttigieg just dropped out of the race, sending his supporters scrambling to find a new candidate. And this is all happening just hours before Super Tuesday, meaning all bets are off as far as how it shakes out – or are they?
Two things are at play here. First, Biden will definitely a see nationwide bump from his South Carolina victory. He was the clear frontrunner in national polling, until Mike Bloomberg stepped in and pulled nearly half his support away. One reason Bloomberg was able to peel off so many Biden supporters is that the media was busy pretending Iowa and New Hampshire were going to tell us anything about the primary race, and because those states aren’t a strength for Biden, the media was painting his candidacy as dead. Now voters can see that Biden is very much in contention, and so a large number of his supporters should shift from Bloomberg back to him.
Then we have the roughly 11% of primary voters nationwide who were aligned behind Pete Buttigieg, and who now need a home. Based on ideology and momentum, the largest chunk of Pete’s base should shift to Biden, with some shifting to Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and Warren, and very few shifting to Sanders. Right now Biden is behind Sanders by about 11 points in the RCP national polling averages. If he picks up, say, seven points from Pete dropping out, an another five points from his South Carolina win, Biden could end up being back in the national lead within a few days.
Of course this is all happening even as we head into Super Tuesday with poll numbers that are instantly made obsolete by the events of the past forty-eight hours, and no time for new polls to be conducted in the Super Tuesday states before they vote. So we’re flying a bit blind this week. Sanders will win the majority of Super Tuesday delegates. But with the way everything has suddenly shifted, it won’t be the kind of dominant majority that he was hoping for. Nevertheless, we’re likely heading into a week where Sanders opens a large delegate lead, even as Biden pulls back into first place in nationwide polling.
Sanders’ lead will only matter if it’s large enough to overcome Biden’s upcoming dominant wins in Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, and so on. In general, at this stage in the race, the candidate who carves out first place in national polls usually ends up with the most delegates. It’s just math, even though the staggered nature of voting creates the illusion that the person with the most current delegates is going to end up with the most delegates. In any case the most likely outcome continues to be that no candidate ends up with a majority of delegates, and we end up at a brokered convention, where Biden is the most likely to emerge as the nominee.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report