COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joe Biden notched his first election win Saturday in this first-in-the-South state on the strength of widespread support from black voters — a triumph that he’s hoping will propel him on Super Tuesday and then into a one-on-one race against Bernie Sanders.
Biden’s win was announced as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m., based on preliminary results and exit polls showing him with a staggering lead. The victory puts the onetime frontrunner back into serious contention for the party’s nomination against Sanders, who leads the crowded field and likely came in second.
The results from South Carolina also promise to alter the trajectory of the race by damaging the prospects of several other candidates who have failed to demonstrate that they can generate significant support from non-white voters.
The outcome also undercuts the case for the candidacy of billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who has spent $500 million since entering the race late in November on the theory that the former vice president would implode.
The former vice president to the first black president counted on the state primary’s majority black electorate to vault him to victory in South Carolina and into the Super Tuesday run of states, where voters of color make up a significant portion of the electorate. After three straight losses, Biden’s South Carolina win enabled the 77-year-old to claim the mantle of comeback kid.
“For all of those, you’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign!” Biden said to cheers at his election night party. “Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead. Now thanks to all of you — the heart of the Democratic party — we’ve just won and we won big because of you. And we are very much alive!”
Earlier in the day, Biden stopped by the Phillis Wheatley Community Center polling station in Greenville and predicted a win, but refused to predict a margin. “The bigger the win, the bigger the bump,” he said.
With the exception of Sanders, for Biden’s opponents it’s more like the bigger the loss, the longer the odds going forward.
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are poised to lose by wide margins in South Carolina. Combined with their mediocre to poor showings in Nevada, that outcome in South Carolina would define them as candidates who can’t appeal to a diverse electorate. Billionaire Tom Steyer polled better among African Americans but was still on track to lose badly to Biden and Sanders despite pouring a massive amount of his own money into the state.
When compared to the coverage of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Warren has so far escaped major critical coverage about her struggles appealing to non-whites. But polls show her doing worse than Buttigieg in South Carolina, and another survey had the senator trailing Sanders in her home of Massachusetts, a Super Tuesday state.
“I will be the first to say that the first four contests haven’t gone exactly as I had hoped,” Warren acknowledged in her concession speech, vowing to fight on.
Steyer, who spent more than $22 million on television alone in South Carolina, dropped out after his distant third-place finish. He had waged the least-efficient presidential bid. He was roundly mocked by Democrats after booty-shaking on stage Friday night to a rendition of “Back That Azz Up” with the 90s rapper Juvenile.
The other billionaire in the race, Bloomberg, hasn’t competed in the first four early states. He decided in November to enter the race after his internal polling predicted a Biden collapse that would help hand the nomination to Warren or Sanders.
But Biden battled back, and Bloomberg ironically could help Sanders more easily cinch the nomination if the billionaire divides up moderates votes while the Vermont senator consolidates progressives.
As a chorus of pundits and Democratic establishment figures began expressing concerns about Bloomberg’s candidacy, his campaign issued a statement looking forward to the contest ahead.
“Mike Bloomberg has not been on the ballot yet. Our campaign is focused on organizing Democrats and building infrastructure in states all around the country,” campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said. “Mike is the only candidate to campaign in all 14 Super Tuesday states over the last two months and we look forward to Tuesday. Mike’s record of successfully leading and managing through crises and challenges is exactly what Americans are looking for in a new president.”
In his concession speech, delivered in Virginia Beach, Sanders also said he was looking forward to Super Tuesday. Despite Biden’s big win, Sanders still leads in the number of delegates overall thanks to winning the most votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
“You cannot win them all,” he said. “Tonight, we did not win in South Carolina. That will not be the only defeat. There are a lot of states in this country. Nobody wins them all.”
Sanders then pivoted to the core of his outsider, anti-establishment campaign.
“Now, in case you haven’t noticed, the political and economic establishment of this country, they’re getting very nervous about our campaign,” he said, adding that the pharmaceutical lobby and “the lobbyists for the military industrial complex, they’re very worried.”
Biden, too, drew attention to Sanders’ unorthodox political record by obliquely mentioning the Vermont senator has long been an independent, not a Democrat.
“If the Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat — a life-long Democrat — a proud Democrat, an Obama/Biden Democrat, then join us!” Biden said as he was interrupted by cheers. “We have the option of winning big or losing big. That’s the choice.”
One big boost to Biden was the endorsement of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the godfather of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. Exit polls showed that 47 percent of voters said his endorsement was an important factor in their decision.
Paradoxically, however, Clyburn on Election Day complained that Biden needed to “retool” his campaign but didn’t provide specifics.
In one of the most closely watched Super Tuesday states, Texas, polling suggests Bloomberg is eating into Biden’s margins and boosting Sanders.
Biden’s path to the nomination revolves around carrying moderate white voters and winning heavily African-American congressional districts from California through Texas and across the Southeast during March. Sanders is counting on winning big with Latino voters and progressives.
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Just as Biden did in Nevada — where he fashioned a second-place finish as a win — Sanders’ team is also saying that his expected second-place finish will be tantamount to a victory after his thrashing by Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. Clinton beat Sanders by nearly 50 points in the early state, and Sanders struggled mightily from then on in heavily African-American states.
Sanders adviser Chuck Rocha said via text message that the story of his candidate on Saturday, by contrast, would be that “Bernie over-performs in S.C., building off his support in the first three contests with diverse communities, springboarding him into Super Tuesday and putting him in the strongest position to win the nomination and beat Trump!”