U.S. Election 2020: A contentious debate sets the stage for South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday

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      After a rancorous seven-way Democratic debate last night—more akin to a group knife fight than an exchange of ideas—it’s clear that it’s crunch time for a number of candidates who are hoping to end Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s string of victories.

      With this Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic primary and 14 state primaries set for next Tuesday, the next six days could be some of the most bitterly fought of the entire primary season.

      Joe Biden, who was often touted as a front-runner until disastrous showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, will need a solid win in South Carolina to keep going. With cumulative polling currently showing the former vice president with a roughly 10-point lead over Sanders, he may just be able to pull it off.

      Except for billionaire Tom Steyer—who spent much time courting the Palmetto State’s black voters and currently holding steady at 14 percent—all the other candidates are polling below 10 percent. Considering that Democratic voters in South Carolina are about 60 percent black and this is the first primary in the racially diverse Southeast, it spells trouble for Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg. It’s even worse news for Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who haven’t even cracked the 5 percent mark.

      Regardless of who wins South Carolina, the real jackpot comes next Tuesday, with 14 states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia) and the Democrats Abroad organization holding primaries, as well as a caucus in American Samoa. In all, 1,357 delegates will be up for grabs, or about 34 percent of the grand total (1,991 delegates are needed to win on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in July).

      So how is Super Tuesday shaping up? While up-to-date polling doesn’t exist for every contest, Sanders leads in almost every instance where there are reliable numbers, including Maine, North Carolina, and the crucial delegate-rich states of California and Texas. Two races where Sanders has stiff competition are Massachusetts and Minnesota, due to favourite daughters Warren and Klobuchar, respectively. (Current numbers show Sanders slightly ahead in Massachusetts, slightly behind in Minnesota.)

      The big variable in the race, of course, is billionaire Mike Bloomberg. Despite a dire appearance in last week’s debate, a stumbling performance last night, and low (although climbing) poll numbers, Bloomberg’s deep pockets may keep him in the race for a while. Unlike other candidates who are struggling to gain traction and running out of money, Bloomberg is self-financed (he’s already spent $400 million U.S.) and could easily continue on past next week without winning a single primary.

      Should Sanders manage a sweep—or a close approximation—on Super Tuesday, it may prove very difficult for the lower-performing candidates to stay in the race.

      Polls close Saturday at 4 p.m. PST for the South Carolina primary; Super Tuesday poll hours vary by state.