Bolstering his support in the Palmetto State was sky-high turnout. More than 500,000 voters cast ballots in the primary contest, surpassing the roughly 370,000 cast in 2016, and nearly tying the record-setting turnout in 2008, when former President Obama was on the ballot.
The South Carolina primary was also the first this year in which Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suffered a clear defeat, with Biden leading him by double-digits in vote returns.
Biden’s bet on South Carolina paid off
Biden and his allies have argued for months that South Carolina would be his saving grace, should the first three contests not work out to his benefit.
On Saturday, that argument was proven right.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Biden led his closest rival, Sanders, by nearly 30 points, a margin similar to that of Obama over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2008. He picked up wide support from self-identified conservatives, moderates and African American voters, and will head into Super Tuesday with the argument that he is the clear alternative to Sanders.
There were a handful of factors that contributed to Biden’s win Saturday. From the beginning, he easily claimed the mantle of Obama’s successor. But he also had deep ties in the state, spanning decades, including a close relationship with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking black member of Congress who endorsed Biden on Wednesday.
Biden still faces a lot of questions heading into Super Tuesday on March 3, when more than a dozen states will hold their primaries. His campaign has been slow to ramp up its operations in those states and he will have to compete with the free-spending campaign of former New York City Mike Bloomberg.
But for now, Biden is savoring his win in South Carolina.
“Just days ago the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead,” Biden said at a rally in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday night. “Now, thanks to you — the heart of the Democratic Party — we haven’t just won. We won big, and we are very much alive.”
The electorate in South Carolina was the most diverse and moderate yet
Black and moderate voters turned out in force Saturday. That ultimately helped provide Biden a decisive win in the Palmetto State.
Early exit polls show that black voters accounted for about 55 percent of the primary electorate. That’s down slightly from 2016, when black voters made up about 61 percent of those who cast ballots in South Carolina’s Democratic nominating contest.
There are some possible explanations for that decrease. For one, unlike 2016, when both Democrats and Republicans had competitive primaries, there was no GOP primary this year. South Carolina has open primaries, meaning Republicans and independents could vote in the Democratic contest. That may have contributed to the 2020 primary being a bit whiter than it was four years ago.
The decrease may also owe to the fact that South Carolina has seen an influx of white out-of-staters moving in in recent years.
Biden was the overwhelming favorite among black voters Saturday. An NBC News exit poll showed the former vice president taking about 60 percent of the black vote. Meanwhile, Sanders registered only about 17 percent.
The electorate in South Carolina was also notably more moderate than in the first three nominating contests. Voters who described themselves as either conservative or moderate made up about 49 percent of those who cast ballots on Saturday, while self-described liberals accounted for about 51 percent.
That’s significantly higher than in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. In those three states, liberals made up roughly two-thirds of the electorate, while moderates and conservatives accounted for about one-third of the total vote.
The more moderate composition of South Carolina’s primary voters boosted Biden. About half of self-described moderates and conservatives said they supported Biden on Saturday.
Sanders shows signs of vulnerability
Sanders supplanted Biden as the front-runner in the Democratic primary contest after scoring back-to-back wins in the Nevada caucuses and New Hampshire primary, as well as a top-tier finish in Iowa.
His campaign has been bolstered by strong support among young voters and Latinos, and he often boasts on the stump that he has built a “multiracial, multigenerational” coalition of support.
What Saturday’s vote in South Carolina showed, however, is that the Vermont senator has yet to win the support of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency: black voters.
Sanders’s support among black voters didn’t come near that of Biden. And his distant second-place finish in the Palmetto State means he’ll head into Super Tuesday facing questions about his ability to win over African Americans and moderates, many of whom remain uncomfortable with his message of radical change and political revolution.
To be sure, he’s still the favorite to win in delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, like California. But Biden’s win in South Carolina may help lend him momentum in other key states, like Virginia, North Carolina and Texas, where Sanders currently holds a narrower lead in the polls.
Sanders had signaled before voters in South Carolina headed to the polls that he was expecting less than a first-place finish in the state. He spent primary night in Virginia, which holds its primary on March 3.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar are in trouble
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are vying for the support of the same moderate voters as Biden. But they won a significantly smaller share of the moderate vote in South Carolina than their winning rival.
Exit polling from CNN shows that Biden won the support of just over half of moderates in South Carolina. Buttigieg, meanwhile, won about 10 percent, while Klobuchar finished in single digits among those voters.
At the same time, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar performed poorly with black voters, adding to existing concerns about the diversity of their coalitions. Both of those factors are likely to raise questions about their viability, not only in the primary race, but in the general election.
While Buttigieg took the top spot in Iowa and a close second-place finish in New Hampshire — two states with overwhelmingly white electorates — he has struggled in more diverse states, and there are few if any signs that his prospects will improve heading into Super Tuesday, when several more diverse states will hold their primaries.
Klobuchar is in an even more dire position. Her best showing in the nominating contest so far was a third-place finish in New Hampshire, and like Buttigieg, there’s little evidence that she’s poised to take off on Super Tuesday. Her one prize that day may end up being her home state of Minnesota.
The pressure is on for Bloomberg
Bloomberg jumped into the Democratic presidential race in November with the expectation that Biden would falter once voting began, presumably leaving an opening for Bloomberg to replace him as the moderate front-runner.
But Biden’s outsize win in South Carolina throws a wrench in that plan.
The former vice president is likely to head into Super Tuesday with some momentum and new evidence that he’s the candidate best able to build the diverse coalition that Democrats will need to retake the White House from Trump in November.
Bloomberg, who declined to compete in the four early primary and caucus states in favor of a strategy that emphasizes Super Tuesday wins, will now have to compete with a resurgent Biden. But it may be harder for him to argue that the former vice president isn’t electable.
The former mayor and billionaire businessman has far outspent all of his rivals in Super Tuesday states, dropping hundreds of millions of dollars of his personal fortune on advertising and organizing operations across the country. But he will also have to reassure voters who were made nervous by his shaky performance in the recent primary debate in Las Vegas, in which he struggled to respond to criticism of his mayoral record and past controversial remarks about women and minorities.