Skip to content

How Joe Biden turned the tide on the 2020 Democratic primary contest

Image from the New York Times

By Jack Walker

Fourth place in Iowa. Fifth place in New Hampshire. A distant second place in Nevada. Most candidates in a primary contest would see these first three results and conclude that they could not win their party’s nomination for President of the United States. In 2008, Joe Biden dropped out after performing badly in just the first state, Iowa. But not the Joe Biden of 2020. He admitted that his campaign was behind that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, both in terms of polling and campaign donations.

And then came South Carolina.

A state that Joe Biden was, in fairness, expected to win.

But nobody expected the South Carolina primary to revive the Biden campaign in the way it did.

The pie chart below shows how the votes broke down in South Carolina.

Chart represents the top five candidates (and 95% of the total votes) only

No other candidate came close to even winning a county in South Carolina, never mind giving Biden a competitive race statewide. But why?

The answer lies in the state’s demographics.

South Carolina is a majority white state, that is true. But over a quarter (around 28% according to the 2010 U.S. Census) of the population is African-American, a voter base that gets incredibly excited whenever Joe Biden is mentioned or comes to visit.

Put simply, Joe Biden is the candidate of choice for a huge majority of African-Americans.

Compare the African-American population in the first three states with that in South Carolina shown on the graph below.

Figures taken from the 2010 U.S. Census

The demographics in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada overwhelmingly disadvantage Biden. It’s true that he does perform well in primaries with older white voters, but not with many other minorities like Latinos/Hispanics, who delivered a crushing victory for Bernie Sanders in Nevada – in much the same way that African-Americans did for Biden in South Carolina.

Then came Super Tuesday, where fourteen states voted all at once. Biden was back in the race, but Bernie Sanders was still expected to do well, and probably win the night overall.

But that’s not how it went down. Anyone who knows anything about elections will tell you that you can’t just rely on mere expectations. The voting population doesn’t work to expectations.

Here’s how Super Tuesday actually ended up:

Missing votes were cast for candidates who were no longer in the race by Super Tuesday

For context, Biden was outspent massively across the board on Super Tuesday.

Yet voters still turned out for him, and he won ten of the fourteen states up for grabs that night.

Joe Biden suddenly had the lead in terms of delegates and states.

It appeared that the South Carolina primary proved to Biden’s voter base that he was a viable candidate for the presidency, and that his supporters were probably hesitant to begin with after poor showings in the first three primaries.

But Biden played the long game.

He knew that the states after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada would play to his strengths.

All he had to do was wait for them to arrive.

Take a look at the map below which shows the cities in the United States with a majority African-American population, according to the 2010 Census.

Then compare that map to this one, showing which states have been won by which candidate so far.

Blue states have been won by Bernie Sanders, red states have been won by Joe Biden, green states have been won by Pete Buttigieg and white states have not had their primary yet. D.C. is not labelled but has not had its primary yet.

The correlation is clear. African Americans are not only turning out in huge numbers to support Joe Biden, but they are delivering the states that have pushed him way past Bernie Sanders in the delegate race.

The states that haven’t voted yet and are included on the interactive map are almost certain to vote in favour of Joe Biden. They include Pennsylvania, New York and Georgia. Three states with massive numbers of delegates that could tip the race almost past the point of a mathematical no return for Bernie Sanders.

So the next time you take a look at the polls and draw conclusions based from them, take a step back.

Voter demographics are becoming ever-more important in the United States, and Joe Biden knows it.


What do you think?