Hillary Clinton routed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary in South Carolina on Saturday, giving her campaign a decisive boost and demonstrating her advantage with the minority voters crucial to winning the party's nomination for president.
The crushing victory of more than 47 percentage points reaffirmed Clinton's strength as a candidate and suggests she is poised to build her lead over Sanders considerably in the next few days. The election in South Carolina, which has a majority black Democratic electorate, may serve as a harbinger of what is to come when 11 states vote this week on Super Tuesday.
Many of the next group of states also have a large African American electorate. Clinton won 85% of the black vote here, according to an exit poll of the state's voters.
“Today you sent a message,” Clinton said in an emotional victory speech that touched on the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic bigotry and the polluted drinking water that has poisoned residents of the largely African American city of Flint, Mich. “In America, when we stand together there is no barrier too big to break. Tomorrow this campaign goes national.”
Although she said she was not taking her nomination victory for granted, Clinton already seemed to be looking ahead, striking a contrast with the Republican she expects to face in the fall.
“Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great,” she said, as the audience roared at the clear reference to Donald Trump.
“But we do need to make America whole again,” she said. “Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers. We need to show by everything we do that we really are in this together.”
The victory Saturday was redemption for Clinton in a state where she endured a bitter loss in 2008, when early enthusiasm for her campaign among African American voters withered as Barack Obama picked up momentum. Dismissive comments about the South Carolina electorate by Bill Clinton after that loss had threatened to strain the couple's relationship with black voters. There was no sign of strain Saturday, however. Black Democrats, in South Carolina at least, stuck with Hillary Clinton in a big way.
She won decisively with the youngest black voters, a group Sanders had aggressively courted, and she won almost every black voter — 96% of them — over the age of 65, according to the exit poll, conducted for the major television networks and the Associated Press. Her strong performance, winning every county in the state, exceeded even that of Obama eight years ago.
Clinton had worked aggressively to highlight her connection to President Obama as a member of his administration and her commitment to build on his legacy. The exit poll reflected an electorate that was very fond of the president and his policies.
Sanders, who delivered a subdued speech Saturday night to supporters in Rochester, Minn., conceded the race in a statement issued only minutes after South Carolina's polls closed, congratulating Clinton on her victory but pledging that he would continue to campaign.
“Let me be clear on one thing tonight: This campaign is just beginning,” Sanders said. “We won't stop now.”
The fact that Sanders felt the need to say that, however, pointed to both the magnitude and importance of Clinton's victory here.
The win put her campaign back on firmer footing after a bumpy start to the race and quieted the worries of influential Democrats who had helped discourage other candidates from running.
Clinton's campaign had long counted on South Carolina to serve as a firewall against any spread of support for Sanders, one in which her deep ties to minority communities would protect her position as the front-runner for the nomination.
Sanders struggled to make headway against a Clinton machine that has had a strong relationship with the state's African American community for decades. The senator from Vermont did not have much in the way of a visible campaign in the state until recently. In the days leading up to the primary, Sanders signaled that he did not feel victory in South Carolina was within his grasp, spending little time there.
“You don't see him. You don't hear from him,” said Cleveland Sanders, 39, who cast his ballot for Clinton in North Charleston. “A closed mouth don't get fed.”
Enthusiasm for Sanders among some black celebrities and activists was no match for the loyalty Clinton had won from a much larger and more influential coalition of African American leaders, including Democratic Rep. James E. Clyburn, a former House majority whip and the dean of South Carolina black political leaders.
“We tonight have started Hillary Clinton on her way to the White House,” Clyburn said in introducing her Saturday night, praising her for staying “loyal to the administration that got this economy out of the ditch.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a rising African American political star, showed up Friday at a church in the hardscrabble city of Florence, S.C., to hammer home the theme Clinton's black surrogates have been repeating often as campaigning intensified in recent days.
“I'm not supporting Hillary Clinton because of the speeches she's given,” he said. “I'm supporting her because she was here when it wasn't election time.”
Sanders has taken a very different approach to reaching out to minority voters than Clinton, who is more comfortable with the politics of identity and speaks eloquently and forcefully on the ills of white privilege. Sanders has kept his focus on the economy, arguing it is rigged for the benefit of the wealthiest 1%.
As he struggles to win over minority voters, the delegate math is looking increasingly to be in Clinton's favor. Polls show her with a commanding lead in high-delegate states including Texas, Georgia and Virginia, as well as in several other Southern states.
Even Massachusetts, a neighbor to Sanders' home state of Vermont, is looking to be a tossup.
Yet Clinton's momentum is also running into the impressive Sanders fundraising machine, which is built on more than a million small donors whose enthusiasm and devotion to the Vermonter's candidacy outstrips what Clinton has been able to muster. Even a Sanders loss in South Carolina and a weak showing on Super Tuesday would be unlikely to change that.
“Hillary is moving with a lot of wind at her back,” former Democratic national Chairman Ed Rendell said. “But it isn't over for Bernie, because Bernie will have the money to contest her all the way to California, if he so desires.”
That election is still three months away.
Halper reported from Washington and Megerian from Charleston, S.C. Times staff writers Kurtis Lee in Columbia and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.