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Joe Biden's firewall held in South Carolina. Here's how he won

The State (Columbia, SC) logo The State (Columbia, SC) 3/1/2020 By Jamie Self and Maayan Schechter, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden talks with supporters after speaking at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart © Reuters Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden talks with supporters after speaking at his South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart Just two weeks out from Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden’s once clear path to victory in the South’s first primary was growing rocky, causing his fiercest supporters to quietly worry whether the former vice president could flame out.

Because South Carolina was supposed to be his “firewall,” where he had considerable leverage over his opponents and where black voters — which drive Democratic primaries — saw Biden as more of a family member than a politician swooping in and asking for their vote.

Those concerns were ultimately stifled late Saturday when on a stage in South Carolina’s capital city, Biden celebrated his first primary win as a presidential candidate by a double-digit margin over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who since 2016 when he lost to then-candidate Hillary Clinton had built a considerable coalition in the Palmetto State.

Throughout his campaign, even on the eve of the primary, Biden was confident that he would win South Carolina Democrats over, especially black voters. He exuded that confidence when, asked about efforts to cut away at his support here, he gripped a State newspaper reporter’s hand and whispered confidently, “Trust me. I feel very good about this.”

Biden didn’t just need a win in South Carolina — as he told his S.C. supporters Saturday night, “We had the option, win big or lose big. That’s the choice.”

And he exceeded margins in polls that were most favorable to him heading into primary week.

“Many pundits thought Biden needed a 10-point win. Exceeding that by a large margin, there’s no doubt that Biden’s comeback is real,” said Jordan Ragusa, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, who co-wrote a book on South Carolina’s primary history.

“Historically, there is a strong connection between South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states. There are two notable exceptions: 2004 and 2008. Fortunately, we only have to wait 72 hours to find out how this year will play out.”

So what does Biden’s win in South Carolina mean? Here are some takeaways:

Clyburn’s endorsement mattered

If South Carolina was Biden’s “firewall,” then U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn ensured it would not topple over.

What kept Biden in first place was his base of supporters, but what may have propelled Biden to victory was the endorsement from Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Three days before the South Carolina primary, Clyburn gave his endorsement to Biden in an emotional speech a day after the presidential primary debate in Charleston.

According to exit polls, the hat tip boosted Biden’s viability in South Carolina.

Exit polls showed that about 47% of Democratic voters said Clyburn’s final week endorsement was a factor in their vote.

Clyburn’s endorsement “is as significant as breathing is,” said Clay Middleton, former senior political adviser on then-U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign and former state director for Clinton in 2016.

On Saturday night, both Biden and Clyburn spoke to the “heart” of the Democratic Party — African American voters, who make up more than 60% of the state Democratic Party’s primary voting bloc.

That influence and network that Clyburn can offer Biden will be put to use over the next 72 hours.

Biden’s first appearance Sunday was to attend a church service in Selma, Alabama — a focal point of the civil rights movement.

“Clyburn’s influence, his perspective goes beyond the 6th Congressional district,” Middleton said. “That reverberates throughout South Carolina and beyond our borders.”

Biden was popular, drew a broad coalition

Biden’s entrance into the 2020 race came with an already cemented welcome mat in South Carolina.

“Well, I’ve been coming here a long time. I think, because folks know me here,” Biden told The State when asked on Friday what he considered a contributing factor should he win the state’s primary.

But it was more than that.

Biden’s relationship with the state and its voters and position under former President Barack Obama were leading qualifiers for South Carolina Democrats when asked why Biden was their first choice in the primary.

Despite a steady decline in polls of the state’s primary voters, Biden was liked by a huge portion of voters on Saturday, ABC News reported.

Seventy-eight percent of voters held a favorable opinion of Biden, including 85% of black voters, according to exit polls.

By contrast, Sanders’ favorability rating was 51%. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is polling well nationally but was not on South Carolina’s ballot, had a 66% unfavorable rating.

Biden’s support came from more than African Americans — who make up more than 60% of the party electorate in South Carolina — exit polls showed.

The former vice president also did better than Sanders among white voters, who picked him 34-25%, according to ABC News.

Voter turnout exceeded 2016

It helped that the state has added more than 300,000 registered voters in four years, and more than a million since the 2008 Democratic presidential primary here.

As of Sunday morning, around 524,000 votes had been reported cast in the primary, for a turnout of nearly 16%, exceeding 2016, when turnout was 12.6% statewide, according to the State Election Commission.

By comparison, statewide turnout Saturday was not as good as in 2008 when it was nearly 24% statewide, despite the number of ballots cast nearing 2008 levels. That year Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary and went on to win the nomination and the White House.

Those results aren’t official yet. As of 8 a.m., a few counties still had precincts out, putting reporting at slightly more than 93%. Most of the unreported precincts were in Charleston County. Richland County had one unreported precinct, according to online election results.

Democratic presidential primary voter participation:

2008 — 532,151 ballots cast. 23.7% turnout.

2016 — 373,063 ballots cast. 12.6% turnout.

Billionaire out

Billionaire Tom Steyer spent more than $20 million in the state on ads but came up short. Still, he managed to secure a third-place win.

Saturday night, Steyer called it quits, announcing he was dropping out, but stopping short of endorsing any of his challengers. Instead, he touted his grassroots organizing skills and said any Democrat running would be better than the president.

With Steyer out, political observers started calling for others to get out, too.

For example, Amanda Loveday, a former S.C. Democratic Party executive director, said on MSNBC late Saturday after the election that the race was down to two people: Sanders and Biden, and a vote for anyone else was a vote for Sanders.

The delegate race has just begun

Sanders appeared to have the momentum heading into Saturday. He was coming off of a near win in Iowa, a close win in New Hampshire and a solid win in Nevada. But Biden’s overwhelming win in South Carolina, a landslide, nearly evened the playing field.

With his South Carolina win, where 54 delegates were in play, Biden is catching up quickly with Sanders.

Super Tuesday springboard?

Biden faces a far greater challenge outside of South Carolina, where the race to clinch delegates becomes more aggressive and where Bloomberg and Sanders have already heavily invested.

Biden told The State on Friday he knows he can’t compete with Bloomberg’s wealth and noted Sanders has raised a lot of money and awareness around his campaign.

“But I think we’re gonna do fine,” Biden said. “I think we’ll do well. I think it’s one of the reasons why the down ballot candidates are endorsing me and wanting me to come in and not Bernie or others.”

Biden told The State he doesn’t have many, if any, regrets as far as South Carolina is concerned.

He did, however, concede one thing.

“If you mean was I reluctant to go after others who won’t help down ballot folks, maybe I should have started that earlier,” he said in an interview in Sumter. “It’s not until folks started to go kind of attack me. I think it’s pretty clear that if some of the candidates who are still in the race are on the ticket, it’s unlikely it’s going to help many people in South Carolina (who) are Democrats running, or in North Carolina, or in Georgia or in Texas and Florida. So, I think it matters.”

On Saturday, Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign told the Associated Press his first-place finish means “only two candidates remaining with a viable path to the nomination.”

Biden’s popularity among black voters set him up to do well on Super Tuesday, where a third of delegates are in play.

Comparing Biden to former President Barack Obama, Dunn said Obama’s 2008 win in South Carolina was his “springboard to the presidency, and we’re on our way to saying the same thing about Joe Biden.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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