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The South Carolina Democratic primary: What you need to know

The Democratic Party held its first official primary in the Palmetto State on Saturday, Feb. 3.

You shouldn’t need a political science degree to understand how the presidential election is working this year.

But Americans would be justified if they are confused by the mess that is the presidential primary calendar in 2024.

South Carolina Democrats held the party’s first official primary this Saturday, which went to President Joe Biden. But didn’t New Hampshire Democrats just vote for Biden?

To add to the confusion, Republicans are holding their own South Carolina primary — but later in the month.

So why is this year so chaotic? Let’s break it down.

President Biden speaks at a service at St. John Baptist Church in West Columbia, S.C.
President Biden speaks at a service at St. John Baptist Church in West Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 28. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Why South Carolina is going first

South Carolina is the first official contest of the national Democratic Party’s nomination process to choose a nominee for the November general election.

That’s a mouthful. Basically it just means that the national Democratic Party is counting the South Carolina results and that they didn’t count the results from New Hampshire.

Why?

Well, for decades, Iowa and New Hampshire held formal primaries and caucuses and allocated delegates. But that changed last year when the national Democratic Party — with Biden’s encouragement — moved its primary calendar around.

Biden’s party did this for two reasons. It wanted its nomination process to be more influenced by states that had greater racial diversity, so putting South Carolina first gave Black voters more of a say earlier in the process. About 1 in 4 South Carolinians are Black, while Iowa and New Hampshire are roughly 90% white.

Biden also felt a debt of gratitude to the Palmetto State, which rescued his candidacy in the 2020 Democratic primary after his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire and sent him on to the nomination.

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden is greeted by Rep. James Clyburn in South Carolina in 2020.
Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden is greeted by Rep. James Clyburn at a South Carolina primary-night rally in 2020. Clyburn's endorsement helped Biden win the state and the nomination that year. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Why New Hampshire voted anyway

However, New Hampshire Democrats weren’t content to take a back seat. They went ahead with their primary, holding it the same day as the Republicans, who continued the tradition of letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first and second.

Biden did not put his name on the ballot in New Hampshire to reinforce the fact that delegates to the convention would not be awarded based on the result. And technically, a political party's nomination for president can only be won by the candidate who has the most delegates.

So, unlike in New Hampshire, the winner of the South Carolina primary will be awarded delegates. The candidate who wins a majority of all the delegates formally becomes the party’s nominee at the convention this summer.

The delegate process has in the past given parties huge power over who their candidate is, and that process remains in place even as control over the nomination is largely in the hands of the small number of voters who participate in a few primaries.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston as balloons cover the delegates.
The 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston as balloons cover the delegates. (Bob Covington/Reuters)

Why many expect Biden to win South Carolina easily

You never know what’s going to happen on Election Day. Shocking results can and do occur.

At the same time, Biden’s strong performance in New Hampshire indicates he’s likely to do even better in South Carolina.

Because Biden’s name was not on the ballot in New Hampshire, his supporters there had to write in his name. And nearly 80,000 New Hampshire voters did so, compared to just 24,000 voters who pulled the lever for Rep. Dean Phillips.

Biden ultimately won with 64% of the vote, versus around 20% for Phillips and 4% for author Marianne Williamson.

That result didn’t impact the official process. But it sent a clear political signal that Democrats are united behind Biden.

According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 74% of Democrats say they want Biden to be their nominee. Williamson follows with just 4% support, and Phillips has only 3%.

Melissa Hinebauch waves to cars while promoting the write-in campaign to put President Biden’s name on the New Hampshire Democratic primary ballot.
Melissa Hinebauch waves to cars while promoting the write-in campaign to put President Biden’s name on the New Hampshire Democratic primary ballot during a Get Out the Vote event in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 19. (Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters)