Why The South Carolina Primary Worth Watching Instead Of Iowa

Bernie Sanders looked like he’d be running against Donald Trump in 2020. The Iowa caucus was a disaster, but he went on to win Nevada, Vermont and New Hampshire. 

New Hampshire was Joe Biden’s worst showing, as he received only 8.4% of the primary votes compared to Sanders’ 25.6%. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar received New Hampshire delegates, too. Biden received none. 

Then South Carolina’s results came in. Biden won 48.6% of the state’s primary votes. Sanders won 19.8%, a great fall from his previous victories. After this turning point, Biden won every other primary except for three states where he came in second: California, Utah and North Dakota.    

In the end, Biden won 2,727 delegates to Sanders’ 1,118. It was not a close contest, and the earliest primary states did not predict it. With so much attention placed on Iowa, why did it do such a lousy job of predicting the Democratic nominee?

Iowa Caucus’ poor predictive power 

Iowa does a mediocre job of predicting the primary winner in the Democratic Party. However, Iowa does not predict general election victories or Republican primary winners. 

Since 1972, in primaries without a presidential incumbent, six of the 10 Democratic winners in Iowa became the party’s nominee. Only two of the previous seven Republican Iowa primary winners without presidential incumbents became their party’s nominee. 

In 2024, Iowa’s caucus will not be the first for Democratic candidates. Biden recommended changing the order of primaries to make South Carolina the first primary state. The AP News reports that Iowa’s Democratic caucus will “elect delegates to the county convention in March.” It will also begin a mail-in voting process for the Democratic nominee, whose results won’t be known until March 5.    

So, the first primary race that will produce results for Democratic nominees is South Carolina. Even before the Democratic primary calendar change, South Carolina was the first primary where Black voters composed a substantial portion of the electorate. 

South Carolina indicates which candidates have support among broad swaths of the Democratic electoral coalition. Iowa only represents a small part of that electorate.  

Iowa Primary Winners

Democratic WinnerRepublican Winner
1972UncommittedNone - Nixon Incumbent
1976UncommittedFord - Incumbent
1980Carter - IncumbentH. W. Bush
1984MondaleReagan - Incumbent
1992HarkinH. W. Bush - Incumbent
1996Clinton - IncumbentDole
2000GoreW. Bush
2004KerryW. Bush - Incumbent
2012Obama - IncumbentSantorum
2020Buttigieg*Trump - Incumbent

*Buttigieg would go on to win over Sanders by 0.04%, but AP News never officially called an Iowa winner.

The top three Iowa winners are more predictive. 80% of the Democratic primary winners and 86% of the Republican primary winners were in the top three choices.    

Why South Carolina is a better candidate predictor

Iowa reflects a small part of the electorate. The state is 90% white and 4.4% Black. South Carolina is 26.3% Black, so it’s the first state where different racial groups can judge the candidates. South Carolina paints a more realistic picture of how the rest of the country will vote. Biden won the South Carolina primary with 48.6% of the vote. Sanders only received 19.8%. With his South Carolina primary victory, Biden quieted concerns about his electability.    

South Carolina’s primary winner became the Democratic nominee in five of the 10 primaries since 1972 without presidential incumbents. That number rises to five out of six starting from 1992. The Republicans began having a primary in South Carolina in 1980. Since then, six of the seven primary winners became the nominee in primaries without presidential incumbents.  

South Carolina Primary Winners

Democratic WinnerRepublican Winner
1972UncommittedNo Primary
1976UncommittedNo Primary
1980Carter - IncumbentReagan
1984Uncommitted*Reagan - Incumbent
1988JacksonH. W. Bush
1992ClintonH. W. Bush - Incumbent
1996Clinton - IncumbentDole
2000GoreW. Bush
2004EdwardsW. Bush - Incumbent
2012Obama - IncumbentGingrich
2020BidenTrump - Incumbent

*Jessie Jackson would go on to win the majority of the uncommitted South Carolina delegates.

However, Black support for Democrats is not uniform. From 2016 to 2020, three percent fewer Black voters cast votes for the Democratic candidate. In 2020, 90% of Black voters overall voted for Biden. But there’s a larger pattern to watch beyond South Carolina’s primary.  

Further, while North Carolinians, or any US bettors for that matter, will not be able to place bets on those elections, 2024 presidential election betting odds are available from Canadian and European sportsbooks.

Both Carolinas crucial primaries, especially for Democrats  

In their book Where Have All the Democrats Gone, John Judis and Roy Teixeira break down a long-running pattern poorly covered in many polls. 

The authors found that from 2016 to 2020, Biden’s support among nonwhite voters declined, a pattern obscured by higher voter turnout in the 2020 election. Biden experienced “a 6-point decline among Black voters and… an 18-point decline among Hispanic voters.” The authors state that “this decline [was] heavily concentrated among working-class voters.” 

South Carolina will be the first primary where working-class voters of different races will vote for their candidates en masse. This primary is a barometer for which Democratic candidate can both: 

  • Appeal to working-class voters who’ve become crucial to swinging battleground states. 
  • Appeal to key Democratic voting blocs at the national level.  

In the general election, that appeal can have a significant impact. In 2020, Trump won South Carolina by almost 12 percentage points. It was a safe Republican stronghold for him. 

However, nearby North Carolina is a battleground state. In 2020, Trump only won North Carolina by 1.5 percentage points. North Carolina’s March 5 primary could also reveal which candidates are best equipped to challenge the Republican nominee in Southern states.   

Among the keys to the White House is the ability to make inroads with working-class voters, whose needs aren’t wholly met by either major party.

Both Carolinas will intimate which candidates could make inroads with rural working-class voters, but South Carolina will be the first state to test the viability of both parties’ candidates.  

About the Author

Chris Gerlacher

Christopher Gerlacher is a contributor for NC Sharp. He is a versatile and experienced writer with an impressive portfolio who has range from political and legislative pieces to sports and sports betting. He's a devout Broncos fan, for better or for worse, living in the foothills of Arvada, Colorado.