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What you need to know about the South Carolina Democratic primary

South Carolina’s crucial contest
Why South Carolina is crucial for Democrats 04:35

On February 29, South Carolina Democrats and voters nationwide will have their first opportunity to see how candidates perform in a state whose Democratic electorate is expected to be mostly African-American. Sixty percent of the turnout here is expected to comprise black voters.

Two months into 2020, after three states have weighed in, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Bernie Sanders has emerged as the front-runner, winning both Nevada and New Hampshire, and garnering the greatest number of votes in Iowa (though he came in slightly behind Pete Buttigieg in delegates).

The Nevada caucuses were the first test of candidate's appeal to minority voters, given its substantial Hispanic population. Sanders was the most popular candidate among Hispanic voters, CBS News entrance polls showed. In South Carolina, up to this point, Joe Biden has been leading, though his margins have been shrinking. A CBS News poll released Sunday shows Biden ahead of Sanders by just 5 points, a dramatic drop from the double-digit lead he held before the voting in other states began. 

The candidates will also have one more opportunity to debate each other before the primary Saturday and Super Tuesday. The debate on Tuesday in Charleston will be co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

Here's an overview of the history of the state's primary, the campaigns and why it matters:

The history of the "first in the South" primary

South Carolina officially became an early state in the Democratic primary lineup in 2008, but the state had claimed the first-in-the-South mantle in 1980, when the state's Republican Party held its first presidential primary, which also happened to be the first primary contest in the South.

The state Democratic Party didn't hold its first presidential primary until 1992. Since then, it has held primary contests in 2004, 2008, and 2016. In three of those four primary contests, the winner went on to become the Democratic nominee. Before 2008, primaries were run by the state's political parties, but they're now administered by the South Carolina Election Commission and county boards.

South Carolina's open primary

South Carolina doesn't have registration by party and the state's primaries are open, which means all registered South Carolina voters can participate in either party's primary regardless of political affiliation. This year, the Republican Party will not hold a primary. The GOP also didn't hold primaries in 1984 or 2004 when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, were incumbents. As a result, Republicans can vote in the upcoming Democratic primary.

Fourteen candidates will be on the ballot, though half have withdrawn from the race. Votes cast for candidates who have ended their bids will still be counted and reported in the election results. Notably absent from the ballot is billionaire Michael Bloomberg and because the state's primary rules don't permit write-ins, he won't receive any votes in the contest.

Seven Democratic candidates will be competing for 54 of the state's 63 delegates that will go to the National Democratic Convention. The other nine automatic delegates — also known as super delegates — are unpledged and will be a combination of the state's Democratic members of Congress and members of the Democratic National Committee. They are only able to vote on the second round at the nominating convention if there's no consensus after the first round.

Candidates who meet a mandatory 15% threshold at the congressional district or statewide levels, will split the 54 delegates based on their percentage of the statewide primary vote.

The South Carolina Election Commission has implemented a new ballot-marking system — ExpressVote — in all elections since October 1, 2019.  Voters insert a blank ballot into the system and make selections on a touchscreen. After completing, reviewing, and printing the ballot, voters cast their vote in a ballot scanner.

South Carolina does not have early voting, but it does allow absentee voting by mail or in person. As of Friday, records show that voters have returned almost two-thirds of the nearly 30,000 absentee ballots that were issued.

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, voter turnout was just over half of what it was in 2008 with only 12.52% of registered voters casting their ballots. South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson said he hopes to see 300,000 to 500,000 votes cast.

"You're gonna see turnout based on the engagement of all of these field organizations that have been put on the ground by the respective campaigns," said Robertson. "They're going to drive turnout along with the fact that people are tired of Donald Trump and they want to see change.

The electorate

To date, 26% of registered voters in the state are African American but in the upcoming primary, 60% of the state's Democratic electorate is expected to comprise black voters. A win in South Carolina will indicate a strong showing with a more diverse electorate than the first two early states and could give the winner a bounce going into Super Tuesday, which takes place just three days after South Carolina's primary.

Currently, more than half of the registered voters in the state are women. And among registered black voters in the state, nearly 59% are women. For that reason, Robertson, Jr. guessed that women will have the final say. "I think that that you're going to see the African American women — specifically older African American women and white women will determine who the nominee is going to be in South Carolina."

Where the campaigns stand

With the exceptions of Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard, each of the seven Democratic candidates competing in South Carolina spent more than three times as many days in Iowa than in South Carolina to date. Combined, the candidates have spent over 120 days in the state since launching their respective campaigns. A Winthrop University survey published Thursday — the first qualifying state poll released ahead of the South Carolina debate — shows Biden remains the front-runner, narrowly leading the Democratic pack by 5 percentage points. Among black voters, Biden holds a 13-percentage point lead over his closest contender, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

Six days from primary day, CBS News' poll shows Biden 28% support, Sanders with 23% and Steyer with 18%. Here's where the candidates stand, going into Saturday's primary election here:

For months Biden consistently held a double-digit lead in every South Carolina state poll. Even when other early state surveys showed that he may have trouble, time and again he remained the runaway favorite in South Carolina — especially among African American voters. After 4th and 5th place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, some of his South Carolina supporters have expressed doubts about his prospects. His second-place finish in Nevada, though distant, may help ease those doubts, though.

He has some of the most prominent state endorsements including those of former South Carolina governors, more than 100 faith leaders, and a well-known grassroots group known as "The Reckoning Crew." Days before the primary, some of his national surrogates, featuring the 2004 Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State John Kerry, took a second bus tour through the state.

With more than 60 paid staffers on the ground and 7 field offices throughout the state, the Biden campaign says it feels "very good" about Biden's prospects.

In 2016, Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in every single county here, earning only 26% of all votes cast in the state. This time around, his South Carolina team invested in the state early with a more robust operation, citing a "new sense of urgency." At one point, Sanders had the largest number of paid staffers with more than 60 people on the ground — and at least 90% of them are South Carolina natives, according to the campaign. 

His campaign says it has reached out to over a million individuals through door-knocking, phone banking, and other outreach methods. Sanders announced an education plan in South Carolina that would address in part de facto segregation in American public schools, and he also unveiled criminal justice plan during one of his 11 trips to the state.

The Sanders campaign launched its first statewide television ad in South Carolina Tuesday, featuring County Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who had formerly backed Biden. "I switched from the Biden campaign to the Sanders campaign because I want to see the kind of lines around the building that we saw in 2008," said Myers in the ad. "I want to see people motivated to get out and vote for a candidate that they believe in. This campaign's got the movement. We've got the momentum."

Elizabeth Warren has visited South Carolina more than any other candidate (14 visits), boasts the most field offices (11 offices), and according to Kantar/CMAG data, has spent more than half a million dollars in advertising running in eight media markets throughout the state.

"Our campaign invested early to build a staff and infrastructure that would have a presence in communities across the state," said Warren's South Carolina communications director Sam Coleman. "The radio, newspaper, and billboard advertisements are supplementing the existing work by the more than 40 organizers working in South Carolina."

Long before a January national poll put Tom Steyer on the map in South Carolina, he was making substantive investments in the state. CBS News reported in January that the billionaire's seemingly sudden competitive edge was due in part to his return for high-profile Democratic events throughout the cycle. To date, Steyer has spent approximately $19.9 million on ad spending in the state, dwarfing the next highest ad spender in the state — Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg — by more than eight times over.

Steyer has more than 100 paid staffers on the ground — more than any of the other campaigns. And while the team has been accused by some of "buying votes" in recent weeks, the campaign and some of Steyer's supporters believe his appeal goes beyond money.

"Tom has become a voice for the voiceless," said Steyer's South Carolina communications director Tiffany Vaughn-Jones. "Tom has spent a lot of time here looking voters straight in the eye and speaking about the issues that impact their communities, which continues to set him apart." 

During his latest swing through South Carolina's Upstate and just days after his wife moved here, Steyer suggested that his performance here would be a determining factor in the viability of his campaign. 

"If I can't show that people here care about me and that what I'm saying resonates…how am I going to convince people around the country that in fact it works?" Steyer told reporters in Spartanburg Monday. "Democrats are going to show up and it matters and if you can't resonate…if the voters can't relate to you then yeah that's a huge point and I take it super seriously."

In the days after strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg secured his most prominent South Carolina endorsement from state Representative J.A. Moore. Moore described Buttigieg as the "truest representation" of the millennial generation and while he's been able to attract the likes of young organizers like Walter Clyburn Reed — grandson of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn — the question many are asking is how the former South Bend mayor will fare with African-American voters in the state.

While Buttigieg has made a point of courting black church leaders and focusing on appealing to black voters through southern swings, he has continued to register in single digits among likely African-American Democratic voters in the state. He has spent about $2.2 million on ads, according to Kantar/CMAG data. And in a new ad that his team launched in South Carolina on Friday, Buttigieg named Sanders when contrasting healthcare plans.

Klobuchar has spent less time in the state than any of her competitors, under two weeks total since she launched her campaign a year ago. Klobuchar has 4% support in CBS News' poll, about in line with other surveys that show her at up to 3% support. 

Until last week, her team had under 10 paid staffers on the ground in the state, according to her campaign. On Tuesday, a pro-Klobuchar super PAC spent more $600,000 on ads in the state supplementing the $300,000 her campaign has spent on broadcast and cable TV in the state. 

"With more than 25 staff in South Carolina, including a senior leadership team with broad political experience, Senator Klobuchar is confident she will connect with the people of South Carolina and finish with a strong momentum heading into Super Tuesday," South Carolina communications director Deja Knight said.

Her billboards have lined the state's highways longer than any other candidate, but Gabbard has continued to poll between 1% to 4% in state polls throughout the election cycle. She has spent 17 days in the state over 8 visits since launching her campaign more than a year ago. To date, she's spent more than half a million dollars in advertising in the state.

The Republicans

As was the case with the prior nominating contests, President Trump will be rallying in the state just before the primary, appearing Friday in North Charleston. In October, he also visited the historically-black Benedict College in Columbia and was given an award for signing the First Step Act, a move that sparked criticism from some of the Democratic contenders.

Outside of the presidential race, Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham is up for re-election, and so is Democratic Congressman Joe Cunningham.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential primary, South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson is already looking ahead to the general election and calling on the Democratic nominee to invest in the down-ballot races. "It's great to come in and feed like locusts during a primary, but the real work is going to begin in earnest after the 29th."

Polls are open February 29, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET.

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