The real reason the South Carolina primary tells us who’s really going to be the Democratic nominee

Someone is going to win the Democratic 2020 Iowa caucus tonight. I don’t know who it will be. The most recent polls have all shown a competitive race, but are sharply inconsistent with each other, and that’s the best recipe for simply admitting that no one has any idea who’s going to win. That said, tonight’s results won’t tell us who’s going to be the nominee. Neither will New Hampshire. Instead we’ll be getting our answers from South Carolina. But why?

The simple answer is that Iowa and New Hampshire only reveal how non-urban white Democrats feel about the candidates. Their votes matter, of course, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how any other voting demographic feels about the candidates. The winner(s) of these two states are labeled the frontrunners, but this is never actually the case.

Nevada comes next, and it has a more diverse population. But Nevada hasn’t been an “early state” for long, so it’s difficult to measure how its results do or don’t end up lining up with the rest of the primary. In addition, Nevada’s chaotic, exclusionary, and confusing caucus format means the results are just as off-kilter as the Iowa caucus results. So we take Nevada with yet another grain of salt, and we move on to South Carolina.

This is the part where supporters of the Iowa and New Hampshire winners start crying foul. Why should a deep south state like South Carolina get to pick the nominee? After all, the Democrat isn’t going to win South Carolina in the general election anyway. This is true, but irrelevant. South Carolina is crucial in the primary contest because it’s the first look at how the African American vote is aligned. Black turnout in the South Carolina Democratic primary doesn’t have a perfect correlation with black turnout in swing states in the general election, but it ends up being close – and the Democrat can’t win the general election without strong black turnout in swing states.

In the shorter term, South Carolina offers strong insight into how the candidates will fare a few days later on Super Tuesday. If anyone dominates on Super Tuesday, they’re nearly a lock for the nomination. If anyone gets blown out on Super Tuesday, they’re essentially finished. If Super Tuesday ends up being a close contest between two or more candidates, we’re looking at a long primary contest between those candidates. Iowa and New Hampshire tell us nothing about Super Tuesday. South Carolina tells us plenty about Super Tuesday. That’s why Iowa and New Hampshire can be safely ignored, and South Carolina is appointment viewing.

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