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March Madness: Presidential primary season turns South with a vengeance

10 Southern states hold primaries during March, with nearly 1,000 Democratic delegates at stake

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The 2020 presidential primary calendar finally turns to the South on the last day of February, when South Carolina Democrats cast their ballots in their state’s first-in-the-South primary.

Then, buckle up. The political version of March Madness is about to take off.

During March, 10 Southern states will hold Democratic presidential primaries, with 981 delegates at stake — nearly 25 percent of the total pledged delegates who will officially pick the party’s presidential nominee in Milwaukee in July.

Louisiana, which votes in April, and West Virginia and Kentucky, which vote in May, are the only three Southern states who won’t pick delegates in March.

On March 3, seven Southern states — Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina — will vote, with 621 Democratic delegates on the line, including 228 alone in the Lone Star State. Florida, with 219 delegates, goes two weeks later, and Georgia, with 105, goes the week after that.

In most of these states, the amount of public polling on the Democratic race has been sparse to non-existent. That, combined with the fluidity of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire, means all of the Southern races are shrouded in uncertainty.

So the presidential race takes on a twang, here are some things to watch for:

If Biden Bites the Dust: The former vice president’s campaign will be on life support, or worse, if he loses in South Carolina, which will particularly shake up the landscape in the South because of his heretofore solid support among African American voters.

Black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; they are a smaller but still powerful group everywhere else. If Biden exits after South Carolina, his African American supporters will be looking for a new home, opening up an avenue for someone to come in and hoover up a crop of Southern delegates. Or, the black vote could fracture between multiple candidates, adding even more uncertainty to the overall race.

Bloomberg’s Debut: The March 3 Super Tuesday primaries (seven in the South and seven in other parts of the country) will be the first test for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been building staff and airing ads across the region while his competitors dallied and debated in the early states. If he can tap into Biden’s African American support, Bloomberg could become an unstoppable force; his performance across the South will tell us whether that’s probable or even possible.

Bernie, Bless His Heart: Four years ago, Hillary Clinton plum wore out Bernie Sanders all across the South. The only states he carried were West Virginia and Oklahoma (and how on earth did a self-described socialist win Oklahoma?), a haul that gave her an insurmountable delegate lead. Against a much more fractured field, Sanders is likely to improve on that dismal performance, but if Bloomberg or one of the other candidates puts together a coalition that sweeps the South, it could be deja vu all over again for Bernie and his ‘bros.

Wave the Rainbow Shirt: Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay man to make a serious run for the presidential nomination in either political party. How will this play in the evangelical South? Or among culturally conservative African American voters? Polling to date has shed little light on this; the results in March might, although there are a myriad of reasons Buttigieg might falter in the South that have nothing to do with his sexual identity, particularly his sparse political resume.

Danged Yankees: The 2020 Democratic race features one current (Bloomberg) and one former (Sanders) New Yorker, along with candidates from Boston, Delaware, Minnesota, and Indiana. Indeed, for the first time since the modern primary process took root in the 1950s, a competitive Democratic primary race is taking off with nary a Southerner among the major players (if one remembers that for all her New York bona fides, Hillary Clinton was once first lady of Arkansas.) So to the degree that any regional political affinity remains, it won’t be in play in 2020, although Elizabeth Warren does try to remind folks at every opportunity that she grew up in Oklahoma. (As if that compensates for moving to Boston and becoming a Red Sox fan.)

Expanding The Map: If one considers that the primary — perhaps only — purpose of a presidential primary process is to pick a candidate who can win in November, the outcomes of Democratic primary season would seem a poor barometer to predict what might happen in the general election. After all, no matter how well a Democrat does in Arkansas or Alabama or Mississippi in March, she or he is not going to carry these states in November, unless something goes catastrophically wrong on the Republican side.

However, Florida and North Carolina will be hotly contested in the general election, and Democrats have hopes of flipping Texas and Georgia. So time, energy and money (think Bloomberg) expended in those states in the primary seasons could pay dividends down the line. (It’s worth noting that after Barack Obama organized in Virginia and Indiana to compete against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries, he flipped both of those states in November.)

What About Trump? The GOP is holding primaries at the same time as Democrats in all of the Southern states except for South Carolina and Virginia, where they have been cancelled in deference to President Donald Trump. Trump, of course, has no serious opposition, but his campaign has embarked on a strategy of trying to drive up his vote totals in uncontested primaries as a sign of strength. So don’t be surprised if you see Trump parachuting into the South during March to rally his faithful — and, as a delightful bonus, to irritate the Democrats.

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