Joe Biden has scored a thumping victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, saving his once-flagging presidential campaign and gaining momentum ahead of next week’s crucial Super Tuesday contests, as he aims to be the main moderate challenger to front-running leftist Bernie Sanders.
The former U.S. vice-president trounced his competition Saturday, taking 48 per cent of the vote. Vermont Senator Mr. Sanders was the only other candidate to pick up delegates in the state, with a distant second-place finish of slightly less than 20 per cent.
Billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who banked his campaign on South Carolina, quit the presidential race after taking just 11 per cent of the vote. Former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar were in single digits.
The fourth state to vote in the marathon nominating contest, South Carolina was also the first to include large numbers of black voters, the most solidly Democratic voting demographic. Winning them will be crucial to capturing the nomination and motivating them necessary to unseating President Donald Trump in November.
“For those of you who’ve been counted out, knocked down, left behind – this is your campaign,” Mr. Biden said at his victory party in a university gymnasium in the state capital. “Just days ago, the press and pundits had declared this candidacy dead. Because of you, the heart of the Democratic Party, we just won and we won big because of you. We are very much alive.”
Mr. Biden then pivoted to an attack on Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist, declaring that “most Americans don’t want the promise of revolution…they want results.”
Mr. Biden entered the race last year as its undisputed front-runner but saw his lead steadily evaporate. Mr. Sanders overtook him in national polls and won the popular vote in all three previous state contests – Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – while Mr. Biden saw dismal finishes.
Finally winning gives Mr. Biden a major lift before the first big-state state competitions on Tuesday, which include California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts.
The magnitude of his victory – the first time Mr. Biden has won a state in his three presidential runs – could even allow him to overtake Mr. Sanders in the delegate count.
It could also break open the deadlocked competition. Mr. Biden is vying with Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, to own the race’s moderate lane. Mr. Bloomberg has skipped all four early states to focus on Super Tuesday.
Ms. Warren, for her part, is pitching herself as a less strident progressive than Mr. Sanders who can fuse his voters with the moderates.
In South Carolina, African-American leaders credited Mr. Biden’s relationship with former president Barack Obama for giving him an edge.
“If President Obama was willing to trust him, we should be willing to trust him as a race, as a group of people,” Eric Manning, pastor of Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, said in an interview earlier this week. “In this particular state, the reason there is a closeness to Joe Biden is because he was the vice-president to the first African-American president.”
Mr. Biden also scored a key endorsement from Jim Clyburn, a long-time South Carolina congressman and the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
But Mr. Sanders and Mr. Steyer pressed hard in South Carolina and steadily closed the gap. Mr. Sanders has even overtaken Mr. Biden among African-Americans nationally in some polls.
The Vermont Senator learned the lessons of 2016, when he struggled to make inroads with black voters. He deployed a small army of volunteers to the state. And he played up his own history of civil rights activism, including a 1963 arrest for protesting housing segregation in Chicago.
“He’s won people over, and he’s done it without pandering,” said Felisha Woodberry, 40, a stay-at-home mother who supports Mr. Sanders.
Unlike other candidates, she said, Mr. Sanders pitches policies that aren’t specifically targeted at winning black voters but would nonetheless help African-American families. She pointed to his pledge of universal childcare as one example.
Ms. Woodberry said she was unimpressed by other candidates’ attempts to win over black voters, such as Mr. Buttigieg’s belated contrition for racial profiling in the police force when he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“He’s apologizing in the heat of the moment,” she said.
Mr. Steyer, for his part, poured much of his personal fortune into advertising in the state in hopes that a victory here would overcome his abysmal finishes in the previous contests. At campaign appearances, he also played up his religious convictions, recounting that he draws a cross on his hand daily. He also vowed reparations for slavery if elected.
Spencer Anderson, 74, said he was supporting Mr. Steyer because Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are too old.
“Old people get forgetful – I sometimes get forgetful,” said Mr. Anderson, a retired soldier and university administrator. “Bernie Sanders just experienced a heart attack and he hasn’t even got into office yet.”
William J. Simmons, Jr., a minister, said he appreciated Mr. Steyer’s commitment to spending his fortune on progressive causes such as fighting climate change.
“I like his energy and his passion – I can feel his passion,” said Mr. Simmons, 56, at an event in Orangeburg for Mr. Steyer earlier this week. “He’s also focusing on the African-American agenda with reparations.”
Mr. Biden also had to contend with a false advertisement on local television run by a pro-Trump SuperPAC. The spot by the Committee to Defend the President superimposed audio of Mr. Obama reading a quotation about “plantation politics” in the Democratic Party over images of Mr. Biden. The text Mr. Obama was reading, however, was not about Mr. Biden at all.
Mr. Biden was more fired up in his campaign speeches than in previous states. And in a debate in Charleston earlier this week, he launched a broadside against Mr. Sanders for voting against gun control measures in the 1990s and 2000s. Mr. Sanders conceded these were “bad votes” and he had changed his views.
The former vice-president’s supporters cited his lengthy experience and his empathic personality. Many also sympathized with the attacks he took from Mr. Trump and the Republicans during the President’s impeachment trial. Mr. Trump repeatedly claimed Mr. Biden had behaved corruptly to help his son’s business interests in Ukraine; there has been no proof Mr. Biden did anything wrong.
“He’s strong, he’s honest and he’s been fighting for us for more than 40 years,” said Felicia Cummings, a 63-year-old nurse. “He’s been beat up a lot but he keeps coming back."