Big South Carolina Primary Win Gives Joe Biden Campaign New Life

Former vice president needed a win to parry underwhelming results, and to confirm his popularity among black voters as Super Tuesday showdown approaches

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Joe Biden takes photos with audience members at the end of a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, February 29, 2020.
Joe Biden takes photos with audience members at the end of a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, February 29, 2020.Credit: ELIZABETH FRANTZ/ REUTERS

An outpouring of black voter support propelled Joe Biden to a convincing victory in South Carolina's Democratic primary on Saturday, resurrecting his faltering White House bid and giving the former vice president a chance to claim he is the moderate alternative to front-runner Bernie Sanders.

The win gives Biden a burst of momentum as the Democratic race to find a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump broadens quickly, with Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states in three days that will award one-third of the available national delegates.

With 85% of the precincts reporting, Biden had 49% of the vote and U.S. Senator Sanders of Vermont was a distant second with 20%, according to official state results. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer had 11% and all of the other contenders were well behind with single digits.

After the vote count rolled in, Steyer, who had been spending heavily in South Carolina to court African-American voters, ended his presidential bid later on Saturday as it emerged he was coming in a distant third.

A supporter of Democratic Presidential candidate entrepreneur Tom Steyer wears an "I Voted" sticker on the day of the South Carolina primary in Columbia, South Carolina, February 29, 2020. Credit: MARK MAKELA/ REUTERS

Exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed the former vice president with 64% of African-American support to Sanders' 15%. He also beat Sanders, the national front-runner among a broad range of demographic and ideological groups, including those who identified themselves as "very liberal."

It was the first primary win for Biden, who is making his third run at the White House. The commanding margin will allow the former vice president under President Barack Obama, to argue he is the most electable moderate alternative to Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist whose surging campaign has rattled a Democratic establishment worried he is too far left to beat Trump in November.

In the wake of his decisive victory, Biden was endorsed by Terry McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia and ex-chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, an influential African-American lawmaker from Virginia - a possible sign that the Democratic establishment was starting to coalesce around his candidacy.

It will also raise questions about the continued viability of most of the other contenders. Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar all were trailing well behind with single-digit support with more than 60% of the precincts reporting, with dwindling chances to mount a comeback.

Biden and all of the Democratic contenders will face competition for the first time on Super Tuesday from billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has blanketed the country with half a billion dollars in advertising. Bloomberg skipped the first four state primaries.

Biden desperately needed a win after poor showings in the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and finishing second in Nevada. He had viewed South Carolina, where his popularity among the state's big bloc of black voters proved decisive, as his firewall against disaster.

People pause in prayer before Joe Biden walks on stage to declare victory in the South Carolina presidential primary, Columbia, South Carolina, February 29, 2020.Credit: AFP

"For all of those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind - this is your campaign," Biden told a victory party in Columbia, South Carolina.

The resounding win could slow the momentum of Sanders, who had grown stronger with each contest, finishing in a virtual tie for first in Iowa with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg, before notching wins in New Hampshire and Nevada.

'Cannot win them all'

"You cannot win them all," Sanders told supporters in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "This will not be the only defeat. There are a lot of states in this country and nobody wins them all."

Biden, a mainstream Democrat with decades of experience on the U.S. political stage, was powered in South Carolina by support from a broad range of voters, including men and women, black and white, middle-aged and old, those with and without college degrees, independent, liberal and conservative, exit polls showed.

The data showed Biden beating Sanders, who has based his argument on his ability to bring out new voters, among those who were voting in a Democratic primary for the first time.

Exit polls found about six of 10 of South Carolina voters said influential black congressman James Clyburn's endorsement of Biden on Wednesday was a factor in their decision. Clyburn introduced Biden at his victory rally.

"My buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back!" Biden told the No. 3 House Democrat before addressing supporters.

Biden was projected to win at least 27 of the 54 pledged delegates in South Carolina and Sanders 7, with more to be allocated. No other candidate was projected to have won any delegates in the state. Heading into the primary, Sanders had 54 delegates, Buttigieg 26 and Biden 15.

Exit polls showed about half of voters wanted a candidate who would return to Obama's policies, a key argument of Biden. Nearly eight of 10 voters in South Carolina said they had a favorable view of Biden, compared with five of 10 who saw rival Sanders favorably, exit polls showed.

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