5 takeaways from the South Carolina primary after Biden wins big

Joe Biden
Joe Biden, former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate, arrives with his wife, Jill, at a primary election rally Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
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Goodbye, up-close and personal campaigning. Hello, fly-by rallies.

Up to now, the Democratic presidential contest has been a series of discrete events held one after the other in a single — which is to say manageable — locale: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and, on Saturday, South Carolina, which gave Joe Biden the big victory he desperately needed.

Say what you will about how accurately, or not, those states reflect the rest of America. From here on, it’s largely a nationwide contest, starting on Tuesday, when 14 states from California to Massachusetts vote.

But before the Democratic race scatters to all corners, here are five takeaways from election day in South Carolina:


Biden’s not dead yet

For weeks he clung to hope, a victory in South Carolina, like a drowning man grasping at a life ring.

Some of it was an excuse — malarkey, as Biden might put it — to explain away cringe-worthy performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just wait, Biden said, for the real contests in Nevada and, especially, South Carolina. (As though his earlier exertions were all for show.)

He didn’t just win Saturday; it was a blowout.

Black voters, especially older African Americans, have been the bedrock of Biden’s support, and they came through in a big way, making up well over half the electorate and backing him overwhelmingly over Bernie Sanders, the national front-runner.

The Democrats in the presidential primary are fighting each other. Black voters in South Carolina just wish they’d start fighting Trump.

Feb. 28, 2020

The week leading up to Saturday’s primary was probably the best of Biden’s presidential campaign. (Make that campaigns; this is his third try for the White House, and South Carolina is the first state he ever won.)

He finished second in Nevada’s caucuses, turned in a strong debate performance Tuesday and Wednesday received the endorsement of Rep. James E. Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress and a titan of South Carolina politics.


The downside of Biden’s all-or-nothing focus on South Carolina was little time or money spent in the swarm of states that vote in three days; former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in particular, has wagered an extraordinary sum on Super Tuesday. (The billionaire was not on the ballot Saturday.)

Biden’s hope is that his victory slingshots him forward and offers a particular boost in five contests — Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — with similarly large black voter populations.

At the least, Biden has lived to fight on.

Sanders improves only a bit

In 2016, Vermont Sen. Sanders was shellacked in South Carolina, losing to Hillary Clinton by a whopping 48 percentage points. He received only 14% of the black vote, a harbinger of what followed as Clinton capitalized on strong African American support to sweep the South and put herself on an irreversible path to the Democratic nomination.

A week ago in Nevada, Sanders won more than a quarter of the black vote, most of the white vote and, by a huge margin, the Latino vote. His performance Saturday in South Carolina was less impressive; he won just 17% of the black vote.


The state was never crucial to Sanders’ strategy, so finishing a distant second was not a major setback. With abundant cash and a coast-to-coast legion of loyal followers, he is expected to do well on Super Tuesday. He even hopes to kill off a pair of competitors by beating Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in their home states.

But in the first test where black voters made up a large portion of the electorate, Sanders failed to demonstrate a whole lot of improvement from four years ago, despite investing significantly more time and effort. That could be a problem as the race goes on.

Steyer makes his mark

There has been talk of Tom Steyer someday running for statewide office in California.

The San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire gave it a test run, of sorts, in South Carolina, effectively campaigning the past several months as though he were a candidate for governor or U.S. senator.

He spent lavishly — far more than any other candidate — and stumped in the black community as though he were a combination of Moses and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Steyer’s reward was a far-off third-place finish — better than his flyspeck performance in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, but a poor enough showing to convince him to quit the race Saturday night.

“This has been a great experience,” he told supporters in Columbia. “I have zero regrets.”

It’s easy to see why Steyer made his exit; he was unlikely to repeat his South Carolina performance elsewhere.


Buttigieg agonistes

It has been obvious for months that Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and the campaign’s certified political phenom (make way, Beto!) has a problem with black voters.

How much of a problem has become starkly clear since the campaign left the predominantly white confines of Iowa and New Hampshire.

A coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. could become the most important issue of the 2020 presidential election, potentially affecting the economy, campaigning and voting.

Feb. 28, 2020

Buttigieg received just 2% of the black vote in Nevada and about the same in South Carolina, though not for lack of trying.

Unlike Sanders four years ago, Buttigieg has made a concerted effort to appeal to the African American community, spending nearly $3 million on advertising, visiting not infrequently and laying out a long and detailed series of political prescriptions — the Douglass Plan — to address systemic racism and improve the health and economic well-being of black Americans.

If a narrow victory in Iowa and narrow loss in New Hampshire weren’t enough to bring black voters around to Buttigieg, his fourth-place, single-digit showing in South Carolina isn’t likely to help much.


Republicans stay home

Call it Operation Chaos.

Egged on by President Trump, South Carolina Republicans threatened to flood the polls and wreak havoc on the Democratic side by casting their ballots for Sanders, the incumbent’s preferred November opponent, in hopes of tanking Biden’s campaign.

The state canceled its Republican primary, part of a nationwide campaign to smooth Trump’s path to the nomination, leaving partisans little to do on a crisp and pleasant Saturday but perhaps create a bit of political mischief.

With Biden’s handy victory, however, the effort seems to have fallen flat. Republicans made up only 5% of those who cast ballots, according to exit polls.

For their part, South Carolina Democrats hopefully enjoyed their period of political relevancy. The state will almost certainly vote Republican in the fall, as it has in every presidential election since 1976.