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AP Decision Notes: What to expect in South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time ever, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination officially kicks off this Saturday in South Carolina, the state that resurrected then-candidate Joe Biden’s foundering presidential campaign in 2020 and put him on a footing to win his party’s nod and, eventually, the White House.

Unlike four years ago, President Biden now looks to South Carolina voters to cement his campaign as the overwhelming favorite, as opposed to rescuing it from near-oblivion.

At Biden’s urging, the Democratic National Committee rearranged the 2024 primary calendar and slotted South Carolina as the first contest of the campaign season, citing in part the state’s far more racially diverse electorate than the traditional first-in-the-nation states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which are overwhelmingly white. New Hampshire held a leadoff primary anyway in defiance of the DNC, but without the president’s or the national party’s backing and no delegates at stake, the contest amounted to little more than a non-binding beauty contest. Biden won New Hampshire by a sizable margin nonetheless after supporters mounted a write-in campaign on his behalf.

Challenging Biden on the South Carolina ballot are U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and author Marianne Williamson. Phillips received about 20% of the vote in New Hampshire, while Williamson received about 4%. Williamson was part of the crowded 2020 field that included Biden, but she dropped out before the first contests.

The South Carolina primary will be the first opportunity this year for Democratic candidates to begin accumulating the nearly 2,000 delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination.

Here’s a look at what to expect on Saturday:

PRIMARY NIGHT

The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary will be held on Saturday. Polls close statewide at 7 p.m. ET.

WHAT’S ON THE BALLOT

The Associated Press will provide coverage for the Democratic presidential primary. It is the only contest that night. The ballot will list three candidates: Biden, Phillips and Williamson.

WHO GETS TO VOTE

South Carolina has an open primary system, which means any registered voter may participate in any party’s primary. Voters may only participate in one party’s presidential primary, so those who vote on Saturday may not vote in the Republican contest on Feb. 24.

DELEGATE ALLOCATION RULES

Proportional by statewide and congressional district votes with a 15% threshold. South Carolina’s 55 pledged Democratic delegates are allocated according to the national party’s standard rules. Twelve at-large delegates are allocated in proportion to the statewide vote, as are seven PLEO delegates, or “party leaders and elected officials.” The state’s seven congressional districts have a combined 36 delegates at stake, which are allocated in proportion to the vote results in each district. Candidates must receive at least 15% of the statewide vote to qualify for any statewide delegates and 15% of the vote in a congressional district to qualify for delegates in that district.

DECISION NOTES

Biden’s decisive victory in the 2020 South Carolina primary offers some useful benchmarks in determining the winner on Saturday night as votes are being counted.

In 2020, then-candidate Biden carried all 46 counties in the state. His strongest geographic regions were in the Pee Dee and Waccamaw River valley areas in the state’s eastern region and in central South Carolina, including the state capital of Columbia. He received about 54% of the vote in both areas. He was also the top choice among Democratic primary voters in the state’s Democratic and Republican strongholds, as well as in the more moderate areas in between.

But the key to Biden’s 2020 win in South Carolina was his strength among the state’s Black voters. AP’s VoteCast survey of 2020 South Carolina primary voters found that 64% of Black voters supported Biden, compared with 33% of white voters. Black voters made up about half of the Democratic primary electorate that year, according to VoteCast.

If Biden matches or outpaces his performance in counties with large Black populations in initial results throughout the state, it is a strong indicator of another decisive win in the Palmetto State.

One notable difference is that Biden faced a much more competitive field in 2020, which included Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who were the top two vote-getters in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary that year. Biden received 49% of the vote against six other active candidates, as well as five former candidates who were still listed on the ballot. He more than doubled the 20% that second-place finisher Sanders received.

This year, Biden faces fewer and less competitive challengers and enters South Carolina as the overwhelming front-runner, coming off a 44-point victory over his nearest competitor in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23.

The AP does not make projections and will declare a winner only when it’s determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap. If a race has not been called, the AP will continue to cover any newsworthy developments, such as concessions or declarations of victory. In doing so, the AP will make clear that it has not yet declared a winner and explain why.

WHAT DO TURNOUT AND ADVANCE VOTE LOOK LIKE?

There are about 3.3 million registered voters in South Carolina. Voters do not register by party. Turnout in the 2020 Democratic primary was about 16% of registered voters. It was about 13% in the 2016 primary.

Saturday’s event will be the first presidential primary held in the state since a new early voting law was enacted in May 2022. The law allows voters to cast ballots in person up to about two weeks before Election Day without an excuse. In the 2016 Democratic primary, when voters had to provide an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, about 14% of votes were cast before Election Day. In the 2022 midterm primaries, after the new law went into effect, pre-Election Day voting was at about 21%.

As of Monday, nearly 24,000 voters had already cast their ballots.

HOW LONG DOES VOTE-COUNTING USUALLY TAKE?

In the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary, the AP first reported results at 7:09 p.m. ET.

Primary night tabulation ended at 12:17 a.m. ET with 98% of votes counted.

ARE WE THERE YET?

As of Saturday, there will be 198 days until the start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and 276 days until the November general election.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2024 election at https://apnews.com/hub/election-2024.

Robert Yoon, The Associated Press


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