In the first big test of her long-touted “Southern firewall,” former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outperformed her sizable lead in the polls, defeating Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by nearly a fifty-point margin. Driven by massive turnout from African-Americans, Mrs. Clinton carried every district, winning some of them with almost ninety percent of the vote.
Clinton’s unexpectedly strong performance amounts to a crushing defeat for Sen. Sanders, whose narrow path to the presidential nomination depends upon his ability to close the gap between him and his rival among ethnic minorities, among which Clinton has maintained a massive lead for weeks. Having failed to accomplish this crucial goal in South Carolina, Sanders’ defeat is almost certain. High minority turnout in the South will drive up Clinton’s delegate count, leaving Sanders almost entirely dependent upon the white Northeast for a strong performance in this race.
Evaluated in the context of this powerful showing in South Carolina, the Democratic Party’s primary process will present a major disadvantage to Sanders. Unlike the Republican Party, which permits some states like Florida and Ohio to award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, the Democrats require all of the state primary and caucus elections to apportion their delegate rewards proportionally. Though this system enables Sanders to win delegates even when he is not winning states, it also makes it much harder for him to punch his way back into contention as Clinton’s lead grows. Unlike the GOP primary, where a big win for Marco Rubio or one of the other underdog candidates in the winner-take-all states could turn the delegate race upside down, Sanders will have to grind out the race and produce massive victories in order to overcome Clinton’s significant delegate lead, which FiveThirtyEight has estimated will be over 150 delegates after the minority-heavy Super Tuesday primaries take place.
Sanders’ only hope for the nomination rests upon a major turnaround in the South on Super Tuesday and subsequent decisive victories over Mrs. Clinton in states more favorable to the Vermont senator demographically. There is, however, no path for Mr. Sanders if he replicates his abysmal performance in South Carolina among ethnic minorities. Clinton nearly won 90 percent of black voters in South Carolina, a state where African-Americans make up approximately three-fifths of the electorate. As the race pivots south, Sen. Sanders must make up some ground and close the massive leads which Clinton has maintained in these states to less than ten points in order to have a serious shot at earning the Democratic nomination.
Barring a huge comeback for the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, however, it looks as if Hillary Clinton will cruise to her party’s nomination, riding the same wave of strong minority support that her husband did in his primary victory in 1992.
Stay tuned for Super Tuesday coverage and predictions, which will be coming in the next two days!