With three nominating contests down, 101 pledged delegates have been divided among the Democratic presidential candidates. On Saturday, 54 more will be up for grabs in South Carolina’s primary.
But three days later, the stakes get a lot higher. More than 1,300 delegates — about one-third of the available total — will be in play on Super Tuesday next week, when 15 states and territories and Democrats abroad vote.
That’s probably the biggest reason the outcome in South Carolina matters so much: Who succeeds there could have a big influence on what happens three days later. If former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins in South Carolina, where polls show him leading, he could ride that momentum into the most delegate-rich voting day on the calendar.
If he does not win South Carolina, the weakness of his ground operation in most Super Tuesday states and the strength of his competition would put Mr. Biden at a disadvantage. Senator Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner, is well positioned in many of the Super Tuesday states; a few decisive victories in the biggest contests could make his path to the nomination much clearer. Then there’s former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who has spent more than $500 million on advertising and will be on the ballot for the first time on Tuesday after sitting out all four of February’s Democratic contests.
Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also see some bright opportunities, particularly in their home states, which both vote on Tuesday. (So does Vermont, Mr. Sanders’s home.) And former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., may also be able to score a meaningful number of delegates, although no particular state appears easily winnable for him.
Here is a look at what polls are telling us about the six states with the most delegates on the Super Tuesday map.
California: 415 pledged delegates
The big prize. California moved its primary up to Super Tuesday for 2020, and its enormous delegate haul makes this newcomer the instant star. With its relatively liberal, heavily Latino Democratic electorate, it is well suited to Mr. Sanders. And sure enough, after his big victory in neighboring Nevada, he holds a commanding lead in most California polls — such that all of his opponents are at risk of falling short of the 15 percent threshold needed to claim any statewide delegates. (They could still win delegates in congressional districts.)
In many polls, Ms. Warren is in contention for second place. As long as she hits the threshold, she could pick up a sizable chunk of delegates without winning the state. And Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg are each within striking distance; a Monmouth University poll released last week showed Mr. Sanders with 24 percent support and Mr. Biden next with 17 percent, thanks in part to strong backing from black voters.
Texas: 228 pledged delegates
Texas is Exhibit A for why the South Carolina primary matters. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are neck-and-neck in most polls, with both candidates relying on a diverse but fragile coalition. The results from South Carolina, expected to be the year’s first nominating contest with a majority-black electorate, have the potential to help tip the scales in Mr. Biden’s favor.
Mr. Sanders has invested heavily in Texas, particularly seeking to drive turnout among the state’s large Latino population, which made up roughly one-third of the Democratic primary vote in 2016. He has a formidable opponent on the left in Ms. Warren, who grew up in neighboring Oklahoma and landed in third place, at 15 percent, in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll earlier this month. (Mr. Sanders had 24 percent and Mr. Biden had 22 percent in that poll.)
Mr. Bloomberg is also a factor. He has flooded the airwaves in Texas, placing 80 percent of all political ads in the state, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.
North Carolina: 110 pledged delegates
Next door to Mr. Biden’s self-described South Carolina firewall, North Carolina long seemed like an almost equally safe state for him. But early this year, as Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign accelerated and Mr. Sanders consolidated his support among liberal voters (a more plentiful group here than in South Carolina), Mr. Biden dropped in the polls.
All three of those candidates stand a good chance on Tuesday. A recent University of Massachusetts Lowell poll conducted by YouGov showed Mr. Sanders edging ahead with 23 percent support, Mr. Bloomberg at 19 percent and Mr. Biden at 16 percent.
Virginia: 99 pledged delegates
Along with North Carolina, Virginia probably offers Mr. Bloomberg his best shot at a significant victory. A Monmouth University poll earlier this month showed Mr. Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg tied at 22 percent, with Mr. Biden at 18 percent — technically a three-way statistical tie.
In that poll, Mr. Biden maintained a two-to-one lead over both Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Sanders among black voters, but he significantly trailed both among voters making less than $100,000 a year, a demographic that has been crucial for both him and Mr. Sanders.
Massachusetts: 91 pledged delegates
In Ms. Warren’s home state, Mr. Sanders could play spoiler. The two liberal senators have been running about neck-and-neck, according to most recent polls — though a WBUR poll released Friday showed Mr. Sanders jumping out to an eight-point lead.
Mr. Biden remains in the running, sustained by his lead among nonwhite voters, and Mr. Buttigieg is also polling consistently in the midteens.
Ms. Warren received momentum from The Boston Globe on Wednesday, when the newspaper endorsed her, and the following day a super PAC announced that it would run $9 million of ads on her behalf through Super Tuesday. She affirmed this week that she planned to stay in the race if Mr. Sanders fell short of a delegate majority, and she has shown a sustained ability to fund-raise that could keep her in the running through the summer. So, in the event of a contested convention, she may seek to present herself as a consensus choice.
By that logic, a victory on Tuesday in at least one state could be crucial to establishing Ms. Warren’s credibility as a candidate who can win.
Minnesota: 75 pledged delegates
It’s a similar story in Minnesota, where Ms. Klobuchar was out front in her home state with 29 percent of the vote in a Star Tribune/MPR News poll. But Mr. Sanders, who enjoyed one of his most resounding victories of the 2016 primary campaign there, ran a strong second at 23 percent.
Ms. Klobuchar may be banking on a similar argument to Ms. Warren’s should she make it to the convention. In a reflection of Ms. Klobuchar’s popularity among more middle-of-the-road Minnesota Democrats, none of her moderate rivals — Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Biden or Mr. Buttigieg — scored higher than 8 percent in the Tribune/MPR poll. Ms. Warren came in at 11 percent.