The Corner

Don’t Count on South Carolina to Save Hillary

This morning, Politico declares South Carolina to be Hillary’s Clinton’s “insurance policy” and “early-state bulwark.” I wouldn’t count those chickens before they’ve hatched.

Yes, Politico is correct that “nearly everyone agrees Clinton holds a big advantage” in South Carolina, where “she’s still viewed . . . as a sure bet to beat Sanders, and has the backing of much of the state’s Democratic establishment.” The most recent poll, conducted in mid-December, put Clinton ahead in the state, 67 percent to 31 percent.

But the piece misses one key point: If Sanders beats Clinton in Iowa, where the latest poll puts him down by 2 points, and he beats her in New Hampshire, where the latest poll puts him up by 14, then his numbers in South Carolina will improve. They might not improve enough for him to win the state, but after winning the first two contests, Sanders wouldn’t need to win outright; he would just need to perform well enough to beat expectations and sustain his momentum.

We’ve seen this happen before. On December 6, 2007, Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by more than 10 points in the Real Clear Politics average of South Carolina polls. On January 3, Obama won Iowa with more than 37 percent of the vote, eight points ahead of Clinton, who finished third. The first poll of the Palmetto State after Obama’s caucus victory put him ahead by 20 points, almost exactly his eventual margin of victory there.

Sure, Sanders is unlikely to do as well among African-American voters this year as Obama did in 2008. But once again, he doesn’t need to win this demographic, he just needs to close the gap. If Clinton’s lead in South Carolina shrinks from 35 points to, say, 10 points, Sanders fans and Clinton critics will argue, with some justification, that the results don’t amount to a real win, but another near-collapse.

In politics, momentum begets momentum. Sanders victories in the first two states would get some portion of South Carolina Democrats to give him a second look, and the perception that Hillary was fumbling again might prompt some of her current supporters to waver.

This morning the New York Times quotes Clinton’s campaign manager, Robbie Mook, as asserting that, “It’s not just a question of the first two states or the first four states. We’re going to keep going into the map as long as it takes.” Does he sound like a man counting on the South Carolina primary to derail Bernie Sanders?

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