Bernie Sanders just might win the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
That’s the real headline out of a new poll conducted by NBC and Marist College that shows Sanders trailing longtime South Carolina front-runner Joe Biden by a narrow 27% to 23% margin, with five days of campaigning remaining. (Several recent polls have suggested a similar tightening.)
While the top-line number draws the eye, it’s a series of other questions sprinkled throughout the poll that seem to suggest a path to a massive upset victory does, in fact, exist.
1) Roughly 1 in 3 Biden backers in the poll (32%) said they might vote for another candidate on Saturday. Just more than 1 in 10 Sanders supporters (12%) said the same. That’s broadly consistent with what we’ve seen throughout this primary to date; Sanders has the most committed support, while Biden’s has been among the least committed.
2) This poll was in the field from February 18 to February 21. On February 19, the top six Democrats appeared at a debate in Las Vegas. Because of that, the pollsters broke out interviews they conducted before the debate and those they conducted after it. In the pre-debate sample, Biden led Sanders by 10. In the post-debate sample, the two candidates were dead even. That suggests momentum was moving in Sanders’ direction even before he won a surprisingly sweeping victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
3) Among voters with a clear candidate preference or those who had already voted, more than 7 in 10 (72%) Bernie-backers said they “strongly supported” him. Among those with preference for Biden that strong support was at 61%. Again, a clear passion/enthusiasm gap there.
4) Biden is still the first choice of black voters, but Sanders – and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer – are holding their own. Biden takes 35% among black voters to 20% for Sanders and 19% for Steyer. That’s a stunning contrast to the 72 percentage-point margin that Sanders lost black voters to Hillary Clinton by in the 2016 South Carolina primary. For Biden to win, he badly needs to run up the score among black voters – especially because he is losing whites to Sanders in this poll by 8 points. If Sanders and Steyer can combine to win 4 (or so) out of every 10 black votes in Saturday, Biden’s path to victory get rockier.
To be clear: Biden still has to be considered the favorite to win on Saturday. He has based his entire campaign on his support in the black community and, more specifically, in the black community in South Carolina. And he’s still ahead, according to this NBC-Marist poll as well as plenty of the other available data.
But Sanders has several factors working for him at the moment – from momentum to the ardency of his support to Steyer’s continued appeal in the black community. All of which means that if you are Biden or his campaign, you wanted this primary vote to be held, like, yesterday.
Should Sanders score the upset, it would end Biden’s campaign – whether or not the former vice president chose to acknowledge that fact. And with a weakened (or non-existent) Biden on Super Tuesday and beyond, Sanders would likely become the landing place for many black voters. Which, when combined with his support among white and Latino voters, woud make him incredibly difficult to beat in the Democratic nomination fight.