Almost immediately after polls closed in South Carolina’s fourth-in-the-nation Democratic presidential contest Saturday, exit polling had indicated the winner: Former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden — according to exit polls analyzed by the Associated Press and several other news outlets — won the Palmetto State, his first ever victory in three attempts to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
“For all of those of you who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign!” Biden exclaimed in his victory speech Saturday night. “Just days ago, the press and the pundits 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!”
The former vice president invested heavily in the state, and especially in reaching out to the state’s African American voters, who make up roughly 60% of the Democratic electorate.
“This is a huge victory in terms of a firewall, it’s a very good showing for his candidacy,” Dr. Bruce Ransom, a professor of political science at Clemson, told TPM. “South Carolina came through.”
An endorsement Wednesday from House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) appeared to play a large role in Biden’s sizable victory in the state — according to CBS News’ exit polling, nearly half of voters said the endorsement was an important factor in their choice.
“My buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back!” Biden told Clyburn on stage Saturday night.
Roughly an hour and a half after the race was called for Biden, the Associated Press and other outlets showed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) placing a distant second.
Biden desperately needed a boost in South Carolina.
At the start of the Democratic primary contest — before any states had voted — he began pitching himself as the senior statesman, an “electable” candidate to turn back the clock to before President Donald Trump took power. Biden often sells his perspective first term as the continuation of Barack Obama’s two-term presidency.
And then the voting started.
Biden, who had never won a state in his previous two campaigns for president, did not win any of the first three in this cycle’s contest. In Iowa, he finished fourth behind former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
In New Hampshire, things got worse, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) leapfrogging Biden and Warren and leaving the former vice president in fifth place, with just more than 8% of the popular vote.
In Nevada, which voted in caucuses, Biden achieved his best-ever finish in a presidential primary contest: Second. But even that had a caveat — Sanders crushed his runner-up, earning more than double Biden’s votes.
All the while, in South Carolina, Biden’s once-mammoth polling lead shrank as Sanders gained steam.
So the win was critical — the former vice president’s last chance to prove his campaign’s viability before 14 states decide in three days, and an opportunity to carry some momentum into “Super Tuesday.”
“This gives him the launching pad, he has to take advantage it,” Ransom said. “He needs to saturate the airwaves” and “be on the ground, personally” in as many states as he can.
Biden emphasized Tuesday’s voting himself on stage Saturday.
“Folks, as we celebrate tonight here in Columbia, let me talk directly to Democrats across America, especially those who will be voting on super Tuesday,” he said. “This is the moment to choose the path forward for our party. This is the moment, and it’s arrived.”