Why the South Carolina debate was a Bernie-sniping, Bloomberg-slamming fiasco, in three simple charts
- The debate in South Carolina was the last such televised debate before not only the South Carolina primary on Saturday but also Super Tuesday.
- Several themes were conspicuous: Bernie Sanders, the delegate leader at this point, taking critiques from all other candidates.
- Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has blanketed Super Tuesday states in advertisements promoting his bid, continued to take heat from Sen. Elizabeth Warren over his business record.
- Finally, appeals were made to African American voters, who compose a major electoral force in not only South Carolina but Super Tuesday states as a whole.
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The February 25 debate saw all semblance of comity or composure collapse in the Democratic field. Where once candidates made elaborate pains to finish before time had expired, or to avoid interrupting a rival, or to boost an adversary's plan and elevate someone as a worthy Democrat, this debate was sloppy.
Even the previous debates saw most candidates unite with a common purpose, such as dunking on former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. No such espirit de corps on display tonight. An the reason is simple: With one exception, everyone is losing, and unless they can win big on Saturday in South Carolina and win massive on Tuesday in over a dozen states composing 35% of all delegates, they're not going to get to become the president.
For the past several months, Insider has been conducting a recurring SurveyMonkey Audience poll to track the state of the 2020 Democratic primary field. You can download every poll here, down to the individual respondent data. (Read more about how the Insider Democratic primary tracker works here).
Everyone tried to reach black voters
There were a number of themes at work tonight that came up, and it's worth checking the polling to find out their true origin. Many candidates made repeated overtures to black democrats, particularly Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden pointed to their records and their aspirations to help voters of color. Biden is the only candidate polling above water with Black voters besides Tom Steyer, and that's currently the only component of the former vice president's polling that doesn't look terrible.
Buttigieg, on the other hand, almost could not be doing worse among black voters. Fully 49% of those Democratic primary voters who have heard of Mayor Pete would be satisfied in the event he became the nominee. Concentrating on black democratic primary voters, that falls a breathtaking 24 percentage points.
That is the single largest gulf in support in the field between a candidate's overall polling and their polling among a specific demographic. There's nothing quite like it in the set, unless you observe the 21 point gap that Buttigieg also sees in Latino voters.
Bloomberg is strong in the places that vote in Super Tuesday
A second component of this debate was the candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren in particular, attacking Bloomberg's treatment of women in the course of operating his business. The gender numbers are about what one would expect, with Bloomberg severely underwater among respondents who identified as female. But the strategy may have more to it, as Bloomberg has gone all-in on a Super Tuesday strategy.
Though he does best in Mid-Atlantic states that will not vote until late April, Bloomberg does very well in the South Atlantic states (Virginia and North Carolina vote on Tuesday) and better than typical in the western South (Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas also vote on Super Tuesday) and in Mountain states (Colorado, Utah).
This may have been the last chance for rivals to undermine the billionaire prior to the largest date on the calendar, and interestingly enough it was only Warren who seemed up to the task.
Candidates had to hit Bernie
Bernie Sanders is not as weak as he looks among the moderates of the party, and a major effort of the contenders on stage tonight was to try to sandbag the senator among those on the fence.
Sanders is clearly beloved by the left, with 77% percent of Democratic voters who identified as very liberal being satisfied with him as nominee for the presidency. But Sanders does really well among the rest of the party, too: 59% of those who identified as moderately liberal - a statistic higher than that of not only Biden and Buttigieg but anyone who is not Elizabeth Warren - would be satisfied with a Sanders nomination. And among the slightly liberal, 51% are fine with Sanders as nominee, which may be lower than Biden but is still higher than everyone else in the entire field, even Buttigieg.
Sanders has appeal far beyond his base, and it took three primary wins for the rest of the field to pick up on that. That's why the debate went like it did.
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