Senator Bernie Sanders has become far more than a thorn in the paw of the Clinton political machine. He's a full on stick in the spokes threatening to send Clinton end over end. But, it hasn't happened yet and the tumble can still be avoided. How? Great question!
2 WINS = GAME OVER?
Clinton is poised to win the South Carolina primary, by a huge margin. Real Clear Politics polling averages show Clinton leading Sanders 58% to 37%. That's a sizable lead, but for contrast we can go to just 90 days ago and see Clinton has slowly and steadily been on the decline having peaked on November 15, 2015 at 70%; meanwhile Sanders has been creeping upward with an undeniable positive momentum. Sander's 60% showing in New Hampshire (and 22% win, which is more than Clinton's current South Carolina lead) was more than anyone predicted and has tilted the scales further away from Clinton. Nevada is a statistical tie at this point with both candidates hovering around 46%.
Both contests have more delegates than New Hampshire, so naturally both are more important. If Clinton wins both Nevada and South Carolina it will almost certainly signal the slow inevitable ending to the Sander's campaign. The next votes after these two races come on Super Tuesday which includes a large slate of southern states where Clinton is already polling a mile ahead. Wins in Nevada and South Carolina will push that polling advantage higher and create a very steep hill for Sanders to climb.
Even with this nearly certain outcome, things are still in flux and Sanders maintains a realistic chance. As luck would have it, Nevada's Democratic caucus is this Saturday, February 20th, while the South Carolina Primary is next Saturday, February 27th... and that timing is very important.
That's because success breeds success. Sander's Iowa finish was so much better than expected it helped increase his margin of victory in New Hampshire. Since then Sander's number in South Carolina have improved by a statistically significant margin. Right now the two candidates are tied in Nevada. Clinton is supposed to win Nevada, handily. Heavy emphasis on supposed to win. If Sanders pulls out a tie or even a possible victory (it's very possible) in Nevada that leaves an entire week for the papers, internet, and television news cycles to explain why the sky is falling over the Clinton campaign. A week during primary season is a very long time, especially when the press is piling it on.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS...
If Sanders takes Nevada, or if it is a tie, then South Carolina becomes yet another in a series of litmus tests for Clinton's viability. Clinton is expected to win in South Carolina by 20%, just like Sanders did in New Hampshire. A big victory is the signal to the voters that the weight of inevitability is too great. But...what if she wins by 10%? Or, 5%? Will that be enough?
It's a lot like college football rankings. When a huge powerhouse program like Alabama (Clinton) goes up against a no-name program that just popped into the Top 25 for the first time in a great long while, like maybe Kansas (which ironically will represent Sanders) we expect Alabama, the big powerhouse, to win by three or four touchdowns. If they don't blow out their opponent, they might win but still lose ground in the rankings.
That could happen in this race. Clinton doesn't need to defeat Sanders in South Carolina, she needs to destroy him. What happens in Vegas will not be staying in Vegas, it will impact the next week and ultimately the South Carolina primary vote. Clinton's campaign has been trumpeting their lead in South Carolina as the sign of things to come, but it looks like they may have "misunderestimated" (to borrow a term from our old pal W) what was happening in Nevada.
The numbers still suggest a Clinton victory but at this point the polls look more like an unknowing shoulder shrug than a predictive model. The only certainty at this point: The next 8 days will be extremely important.