Berning Out: Why South Carolina is the Death Knell for Bernie Sanders’ Improbable Campaign

Bernie Sanders has had a great run. He has been lauded for his strong focus on income inequality and his appeal to younger voters. He has badly shaken the Democratic establishment with the rockstar-esque rallies he has held across the states. To Hillary Clinton, the Sanders Phenomenon must have felt like a particularly unwelcome throwback to 2008, when the presumptive nominee was beaten by the upstart Senator Barack Obama.

To be clear, by losing South Carolina Sanders lost big. The critical question for Sanders’ campaign was whether he had made any headway with non-white voters. Based on the exit polling data, it appears not. As election analyst and statistician Nate Silver mischievously noted, “One might be tempted to say that 96% white New Hampshire has proved not to be well-representative of the Democratic electorate overall.”

Additionally, that same exit poll data shows that Clinton handily won white voters as well, a group that has broken heavily for Sanders in the previous contests. Sanders may try to cast this victory for Clinton as being much the same as his large victory in New Hampshire. While this may be comforting for Sanders’ supporters, it is demonstrably deceptive. Clinton’s victory in South Carolina poses a much greater challenge for Sanders, than Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire posed for Clinton.

For a start it shows that Clinton’s strength amongst African American voters, particularly African American women (who turnout at a higher rather than African American men), is even higher than then-Senator Obama’s victory in 2008. Furthermore, Sanders lavished attention and money on South Carolina, reporting approximately 200 paid staffers and $1 million on advertising. This is more than the numbers of staffers he had in Iowa.

The national media have breathlessly reported each poll that shows Sanders and Clinton tied nationally, the narrative generally being that Clinton’s campaign is under-performing and the candidate herself is underwhelming. Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight put together a useful metric to determine how Clinton and Sanders should have performed in each state, if they were truly tied nationally.


  • Based on demographics alone, Iowa should have given Sanders a 19-percentage-point edge. They tied.
  • Based on demographics alone, New Hampshire should have given Sanders a 32-point edge. He won by 22.
  • Based on demographics alone, Nevada should have been a tie. Clinton won by 5.
  • Based on demographics alone, Clinton should have won South Carolina by 20-points. Clinton won by 48.

What this shows is that Clinton has performed above expectations in every contest thus far, a largely hidden narrative.

If we turn to Super Tuesday we can see that Sanders wants to win in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oklahoma. However, as FiveThirtyEight’s data suggests, he also needs to win in Tennessee, and restrict Clinton’s margin of victory in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. Clinton’s margin of victory in South Carolina suggests that Sanders’ task became much harder.

Sanders will most likely continue on until mid-March. If he can hold Clinton to a tie in Ohio, then his campaign will still show its viability. However, if Clinton performs as expected on Super Tuesday, then Sanders will struggle to retain his momentum.

Sanders’ concession speech to Clinton post-South Carolina was surprisingly upbeat coming off the back of such a large loss. The Revolution Berns on, but Sanders is lacking the cash reserves and infrastructure to carry him through Mad March.

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