By the time most South Carolinians voted Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was long gone. He had boarded a plane that morning for rallies in Austin, Dallas and Rochester, Minn.
Sanders' early exit appeared to be part of a weeklong effort by his campaign to lower expectations in South Carolina, where he's expected to lose to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. Sanders touched down in the state just three times in the past week, spending much of the rest of it in states that vote early next month, such as Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio.
Clinton, meanwhile, spent most of the week campaigning in the Palmetto State and was expected to speak Saturday night at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
"It doesn't say anything," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Friday of his boss' early departure. "Obama used to do that, too. You'd roll ahead to the next contest. The problem is, you've got so many states coming up on Tuesday, right? It's only four days away, so it's difficult to stay."
In addition to Texas and Minnesota, Weaver said Sanders plans to visit Massachusetts, Colorado and Oklahoma in the days before Super Tuesday, when Democrats in 11 states will vote or participate in caucuses. Then he'll arrive in Vermont to cast his own ballot and address the results of that day's voting Tuesday night in Burlington. The campaign has not yet released details of that event.
Jeff Weaver Friday in Orangeburg, S.C.
Sanders is widely expected to carry Vermont, where he's appeared on the statewide ballot for 45 years. Weaver said the campaign also hopes to win several other states on Tuesday. It's currently running television advertisements in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and Oklahoma — as well as nationwide cable.
"I don't know how many you need to win, but, you know, we gotta win a few," Weaver said. "I don't think it matters which ones, but it's about building momentum. After that, there's Maine, Kansas and Nebraska coming up after that. And then, you know, you're looking at Michigan, right? I think there'll be a big showdown in Michigan. It's sort of the lead-in to the big fight in the industrial midwest."
As for South Carolina, Weaver said, Sanders' efforts in the state had been much like running against an incumbent, because Clinton is so well known.
"Obviously we're behind," he said. "We're just struggling to get as close as we possibly can [to Clinton]. What it is, ultimately, is a delegate fight. So we hope to get as close to splitting the delegates as possible, and I think we'll do pretty well in that regard."
Any sense of momentum seemed to be sorely lacking Friday in South Carolina. At events in Orangeburg and Columbia, Sanders spoke to sparsely filled rooms and delivered lackluster speeches.
The Columbia event, billed as a "Get-Out-the-Vote Rally and Concert," lacked the spirit of Sanders' previous election eve concerts in Iowa City, Durham, N.H., and Henderson, Nev. There was no rousing rendition of "This Land is Your Land," nor Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' hagiographic "Feel the Bern." Only a couple hundred people turned out, leaving the 2,500-seat Township Auditorium looking somewhat empty.
Sen. Bernie Sanders Friday in Columbia, S.C.
"South Carolina, are you ready for a political revolution?" Sanders asked the crowd. "Then you have come to the right place."
Rather than deliver his usual hourlong stemwinder, Sanders spoke for just 35 minutes. Near the end of his remarks, he implored his audience members — and everyone they knew — to turn out on Saturday.
"I need your help tomorrow here in South Carolina," he said. "We need you to bring out your brothers and your sisters and your moms and your dads and your kids and your grandparents. We need a big turnout tomorrow."
Perhaps the greatest enthusiasm of the night came from Michael Render, the rapper known as Killer Mike who has become one of Sanders' most valuable surrogates in the African American community. Render drew criticism earlier this month when, at a Sanders rally in Atlanta, he quoted a female activist as saying "a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president." Clinton's campaign and allies called it sexism, while Render and Sanders said the remark had been taken out of context.
"You can tell who your real friends are when you aren't popular," Render said Friday in Columbia as he introduced Sanders. "I like to say last week, for a short time, I wasn't popular. I didn't do anything egregious. I didn't do anything my health teacher hadn't taught me I couldn't say. But I said something that people used to try to hurt this campaign. And I fully expected to get a call from the senator saying, 'Hey Mike, I thank you for your work. I appreciate you, but this is where our relationship ends.'"
Instead, Render recounted, "I woke up a couple days later to a United States senator publicly defending a black man and rapper and appreciating the American public for being intelligent enough to understand what I said."
Killer Mike addresses Sanders supporters Friday in Columbia, S.C.
Render addressed the long odds Sanders faces in South Carolina and the pressure he said many black voters felt to support Clinton.
"I'm telling African Americans today: If your mother tells you you're wrong, for casting that vote for Bernie Sanders, walk past her — walk to the polls," he told the mostly white audience. "I'm here to tell you African Americans today: If your preacher, if your preacher dares to stand up in the pulpit and tell you to vote for anybody besides Bernie Sanders, I want you to ask him, 'What would Jesus really do?'"
Christ, he said, would seek to "feed the poor" and "educate the uneducated."
"The Jesus Christ that I learned about in my bible in black church on a Sunday would say you vote for the person who has the moral character to bring us out of the mire we are in," Render said. "He would vote for Bernard Sanders!"