Biden's South Carolina win: a 'springboard' to Super Tuesday?

The former vice president claimed first place, and Sen. Bernie Sanders second, in the first major test of candidates’ appeal among black voters.

Matt Rourke/AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrives with his daughter Ashley for a campaign event Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in Spartanburg, S.C.

Joe Biden scored a convincing victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday, riding a wave of African American support and ending progressive rival Bernie Sanders’ winning streak.

The Vermont senator claimed second place, though his loss gave a momentary respite to anxious establishment Democrats who feared that the self-described democratic socialist would finish February with four consecutive top finishes.

Biden’s win came at a do-or-die moment in his 2020 bid as the moderate Democrat bounced back from underwhelming performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The race pivots immediately to a new phase when 14 “Super Tuesday” states take the campaign nationwide early next week.

Biden’s allies almost immediately cast the South Carolina victory as proof that he should stand as the clear alternative to Sanders.

Sanders congratulated Biden on his first win and said it was nothing for his own supporters to worry about.

“Tonight, we did not win in South Carolina. That will not be the only defeat. A lot of states in this country. Nobody wins them all,” he told a cheering crowd in Virginia, one of 14 states to vote next week. “Now we enter Super Tuesday.”

The South Carolina primary was the first major test of the candidates’ appeal among black voters. And while it gave the 77-year-old Biden a win when he most needed it, he must still prove that he has the financial and organizational resources to dramatically expand his campaign in the next 72 hours. He will also be under pressure to rely on his decades-long relationships with party leaders to create a new sense of inevitability around his candidacy.

The Associated Press declared Biden the winner at 7 p.m. EST, just after the polls closed in South Carolina. The AP based the call on data from AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate conducted for the AP by NORC at the University of Chicago. The survey showed a convincing win for Biden.

Even before news of Biden’s win was declared, Mike Bloomberg announced his own plan to deliver a three-minute prime-time address Sunday night on two television networks. He didn’t say how much he paid for the air time, which is unprecedented in recent decades.

Bloomberg’s campaign privately acknowledged that Biden was likely to get a bump in momentum out of his South Carolina win, but they still believe Bloomberg can win in a handful of states that vote on Super Tuesday, including Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina.

And Sanders was already peeking ahead to Super Tuesday as well, betting he can amass an insurmountable delegate lead at that point. After two consecutive victories and a tie for the lead in Iowa, the 78-year-old Vermont senator’s confidence is surging.

Sanders was spending the lead-up to Super Tuesday campaigning in the home states of two major Democratic rivals, betting he can score a double knockout blow — or at least limit the size of their victories.

In a power play, Sanders hosted a midday rally Saturday in downtown Boston, campaigning in the heart of liberal ally Elizabeth Warren’s political turf. Addressing a crowd of thousands on the Boston Common, Sanders said his success in the Democratic primary means “the establishment is getting very nervous” — but he never predicted victory in South Carolina.

On the eve of Super Tuesday, Sanders will host a concert in Minnesota, where home-state Sen. Amy Klobuchar is looking for her first win.

Sanders’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver was among the staffers dispatched to California on Saturday. He said Sanders is aggressively hunting for delegates, noting that their campaign’s experience during the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton taught them that any candidate who finishes Super Tuesday with a significant delegate advantage will be difficult to catch.

“I’m confident we’re going to do very, very well across the country,” Weaver said of the coming days. He also sought to downplay the importance of South Carolina, where Biden was “expected to win.”

Moments after Biden’s victory was confirmed, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe formally endorsed the former vice president and encouraged the Democratic Party’s moderate wing to unite behind him. On CNN, he called on several candidates to get out of the race — “not after Tuesday, but tomorrow.”

But the Democrats’ 2020 primary election isn’t yet a two-person race.

In South Carolina, billionaire activist Tom Steyer spent more than $19 million on television advertising — more than all the other candidates combined — in his quest for his first top finish in four contests. At his state campaign headquarters on Saturday, Steyer said he felt optimistic going into the vote and was looking ahead to trips to Alabama and Texas, two Super Tuesday states.

Not ceding anything, Pete Buttigieg is fighting to prove he can build a multiracial coalition. And with the help of super PACs, Warren and Klobuchar vowed to keep pushing forward no matter how they finished on Saturday.

Trump was paying close attention to the Democratic race.

Speaking before conservative activists earlier in the day, the president conducted a poll of sorts by asking his audience to cheer for who would be the best Democratic contender for him to face in November.

Sanders was the clear winner.

“How could you be easier to beat than Joe? That guy can’t put two sentences together,” Trump told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. “But you know he is more down the middle. Everyone knows he’s not a communist and with Bernie there a real question about that.”

Saturday was all about Biden and whether he might convince anxious establishment Democrats to rally behind him at last.

Elected officials inclined to embrace his moderate politics had been reluctant to support him after bad finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second place in Nevada last week. Yet fearing Sanders’ polarizing progressive priorities, they’re still searching for an alternative who’s viewed as a safer bet to defeat Trump in November.

Senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders called South Carolina a “springboard” for the campaign, on par with how the state boosted the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016.

South Carolina represented much more than the fourth state on the Democrats’ months-long primary calendar.

It served as the first major test of the candidates’ strength with African American voters, who will be critical both in the general election and the rest of the primary season.

African American voters in South Carolina backed Biden over any other candidate by a significant margin, according to AP VoteCast. Close to half of black voters supported him, compared with 2 in 10 supporting Sanders and about the same for businessman Tom Steyer.

There was also evidence that Biden’s status as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president helped him win over African Americans.

VoteCast found that about 4 in 10 voters in South Carolina wanted to return to the politics of the past, compared to about a third in Iowa and New Hampshire. That includes the roughly 50% of African American voters who said they want a Democratic presidential nominee who would emulate the Obama’s presidency.

By comparison, roughly two-thirds of white voters wanted a presidential candidate who would bring fundamental change to Washington.

While voting technology was a concern in two of the last three primary contests, South Carolina uses a wide array of voting technology that presents unique challenges.

Saturday’s election in South Carolina marks the first statewide test of its new fleet of electronic voting machines, a $50 million upgrade from an old and vulnerable system that lacked any paper record of individual votes. The new machines produce a paper record that can be verified by the voter and checked after the election to detect any malfunction or manipulation.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez cautioned Democrats that it’s still early in their presidential primary.

Speaking at a North Carolina Democratic Party fundraising gala, Perez noted that to win the nomination, a Democrat must win 1,991 delegates — and only a fraction of those have been allocated in the party’s first four primaries.

“We have a long way to go,” he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Washington and Virginia Beach, Virginia, Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina and Alexandra Jaffe in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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