Analysis: The former vice president faces a do-or-die moment, and rivals jockey for position heading into the "Super Tuesday" states that vote just three days later.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Democratic primary here on Saturday will determine whether Joe Biden's campaign is alive and kicking, or whether another candidate can lay claim to being the strongest challenger to national front-runner Bernie Sanders.
South Carolina is the first majority-black primary electorate on the calendar — about 60 percent in 2016 — and the winner in four out of the last five contests since 1992 has gone on to capture the party's nomination (the exception, John Edwards of neighboring North Carolina in 2004, ended up as the vice presidential pick.)
The primary comes three days before the immensely important "Super Tuesday" contests, and Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar are all jockeying for position.
Here are five things to watch for when polls close at 7 p.m. EST.
Will Joe Biden win or go home?
On the ropes after losing Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Biden desperately needs South Carolina to rescue his campaign. Palmetto State demographics suit him so well that anything less than a decisive victory here means he'll have trouble convincing donors to pump more money into his campaign.
If the polls are right, the former vice president is well-positioned to win after a debate performance Tuesday that hit the right notes and a well-timed endorsement the following day from Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., an African American lawmaker who's revered in this state. But the size of Biden's lead over Sanders varies dramatically in polls, from a 4-point edge in polls by NBC News/Marist and the Post and Courier, to a 20-point lead in a Monmouth survey.
Keep an eye on the magnitude of his victory — a narrow win won't put the doubts about his campaign to rest, but a double-digit rout will signal to voters that he's back in it.
Who gets a Super Tuesday launch?
The South Carolina primary awards less than 2 percent of the total delegates to the Democratic nomination and comes just three days before "Super Tuesday," when a whopping one-third of all pledged delegates are awarded. It is probably the most consequential day of the Democratic primary, and there are no debates between.
The launch from the Palmetto State could make or break numerous candidates who are struggling to reach escape velocity, and it will help determine whether any Democrat is strong enough to stop Sanders, who leads in the two most delegate-rich states up for grabs that day: California and Texas.
The March 3 contest spans fourteen states — including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Virginia — along with the territory of American Samoa. In addition, Democrats living abroad begin voting that day and through March 10. For now, all the candidates say they intend to compete in them.
Does Mike Bloomberg have a clear lane?
The former mayor of New York City's prospects of success hinge on Biden failing. He's skipping the early states and using his multi-billion-dollar fortune to blitz the airwaves and campaign in Super Tuesday states. The strategy could work if the former vice president flames out and allows Bloomberg to emerge as the choice for Democrats who want a middle-of-the-road nominee.
Bloomberg surged in polls as Biden faltered in the early states, but he has stalled out or dipped since taking a pummeling on his inaugural presidential debate showing last week in Las Vegas.
Biden's performance in South Carolina will help shape Bloomberg's prospects in states like North Carolina and Texas, where the billionaire entrepreneur has poured immense resources. Voter perceptions in those states will be shaped by the Palmetto State outcome, which could either make Biden look more like the juggernaut he once was, or make Bloomberg look like a better option.
Will Warren or Buttigieg pick up any delegates?
In Nevada, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg barely won any delegates while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., won none. Both may miss out on any of South Carolina's 54 delegates if state polls are right — they're running in high single-digits, under the 15 percent threshold to put points on the board.
The two candidates have been favorites of well-educated white voters and showed immense potential when at their best: Buttigieg squeaked out a victory in Iowa, becoming the first millennial and openly gay American to win a major party presidential primary. Warren has demonstrated broad appeal within the party and was neck-and-neck last fall for front-runner status.
But time is running out for both of them to prove they can lay claim to the nomination. Money could dry up if they don't pick up steam soon. Their performance in South Carolina will prompt voters to reflect on whether they still have a fighting chance in the 2020 primary or whether it's time to look elsewhere.
Does Tom Steyer's campaign have a pulse?
The wealthy investor and philanthropist barely registered in the first three states, but he has gone all in on South Carolina and polls in third place. That's a result of heavy campaigning here and months of TV advertising that won him plenty of African American support.
A podium finish might keep his campaign afloat through Super Tuesday and — if he's lucky and the field rapidly narrows — beyond that. But Steyer's path to the nomination is exceedingly narrow and it would take a series of political miracles for him to win. If that's going happen, it has to begin in the Palmetto State.
"I'm hoping that the people of South Carolina will vault me into Super Tuesday… That's what I'm hoping for, and what I'm counting on," Steyer said Thursday on CNN. "This is a place that reflects the diversity of the Democratic Party."