Just a week after he faced (and avoided) political oblivion in Nevada, Joe Biden won a solid victory in South Carolina, the final “early state” to vote before the vast 14-state carnival of Super Tuesday.
South Carolina had long been thought of by Biden’s campaign as a “firewall” for his candidacy: a state whose large numbers of African-Americans, self-identified moderates and elderly voters provided the former vice president with a respite from the overwhelmingly white and activist-dominated landscapes of Iowa (where he wound up fourth) and New Hampshire (fifth). While Biden never trailed in a public poll of South Carolina, his lead overall and among the primary electorate’s African-American majority were steadily eroded by national front-runner Bernie Sanders and heavy-spending Tom Steyer. But after a second-place finish in Nevada and two disastrous debate performances by Michael Bloomberg revived Biden as a potential “moderate alternative” to front-runner Bernie Sanders, his campaign took flight in the Palmetto State and appears to have exceeded expectations.
Exit polls suggest that he will beat Sanders by a two-to-one margin, and lead him in every major voting group other than under-30 voters. He is winning a solid majority of black voters (and even leads Sanders among black voters under the age of 45) and a plurality of white voters. And for the first and perhaps last time, he’s ahead of Sanders among “very liberal” voters along with “somewhat liberal” and “moderate or conservative” Democrats. Biden’s even winning about a quarter of under-30 voters.
South Carolina was never a great landscape for Sanders except as a possible plurality winner in a scenario where Biden’s support collapsed. But his early state winning streak has ended. Steyer has to be the most disappointed candidate tonight. He spent an estimated $18 million on ads in the state, far more than the rest of the field combined, and had a large field staff largely composed of local African-Americans. It appears he will finish a poor third in the state and also trail Biden and Sanders among black voters.
The rest of the field will be happy to move onto Super Tuesday. Pete Buttigieg, who invested a lot of time and effort in South Carolina, is battling Elizabeth Warren for fourth place, with both probably finishing in single digits, and Klobuchar far behind. Biden will clearly get a big majority of pledged delegates awarded after this primary, with Sanders perhaps the only other candidate gleaning any at all.
Vote totals and percentages aside, South Carolina is the first contest in which Biden’s early potential as not simply a front-runner but a popular party unity figure gained some credibility:
Perhaps the early contests distorted the overall national picture in Sanders’s favor, or maybe everything broke just right for Biden (including a key late endorsement from local kingmaker Jim Clyburn) in this particular place and time. But Uncle Joe is now headed towards Super Tuesday with a real chance of heading off Bloomberg and squeezing out South Carolina’s also-rans and making this a one-on-one fight for the nomination with Bernie Sanders.