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Joe Biden gets his first primary win in South Carolina

Vox.com logo Vox.com 3/1/2020 Li Zhou
Joe Biden standing in front of a crowd: Joe Biden campaigns Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 29, 2020. © Gerry Broome/AP Joe Biden campaigns Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 29, 2020.

Joe Biden just got the win he’s been waiting for — and likely by a healthy margin, too.

The former vice president is the projected winner of the South Carolina primary, according to our partners at DecisionDesk, who have him defeating both Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. The victory is a critical one for Biden, who’s built up a strong base among older black voters, and long looked to South Carolina as his so-called “firewall,” particularly after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Given the margin of success that he’s seeing in the state’s exit polls, Biden’s win puts him in a strong position going into Super Tuesday next week.

Biden’s performance in South Carolina — the first state he’s won at this point — also infuses some much-needed energy into his flailing candidacy. The former vice president, who was once the primary’s anticipated frontrunner, has lagged Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg both when it comes to delegates — and outright wins. After the Nevada caucuses, Sanders led the field with 45 delegates, Buttigieg had 26 and Biden had 15. By picking up a likely majority of South Carolina’s 54 pledged delegates, Biden is quickly catching up.

This victory also enables Biden to more effectively position himself as the moderate counterpoint to Sanders: Sanders has otherwise been on a hot streak, most recently winning Nevada by double digits, after narrowly taking New Hampshire and the popular vote in Iowa.

The Saturday win could translate to similarly strong performances for Biden in several other southern states, including Alabama and Louisiana, that have historically followed its lead. It also highlights how strong his support continues to be among black voters, a critical constituency for the Democratic party that makes up 20 percent of its electorate overall.

Biden has long banked on winning South Carolina

In the face of lackluster fourth- and fifth-place performances in New Hampshire and Iowa, Biden continued to bank on winning South Carolina, even as his polling leads had narrowed there. In the week ahead of the primary, Biden was polling 11 points ahead of Sanders in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Ultimately, Biden was able to win because of the longstanding relationships he’s built in state and the familiarity that voters there have with him as President Barack Obama’s vice president. He’d racked up more than 200 endorsements from state lawmakers by the end of the primary, and was lauded for his many visits to the state in recent years — including for the funerals of both Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, two former South Carolina Senators.

“Joe Biden is such a familiar old friend. He’s like a neighbor that you haven’t seen,” says Marguerite Willis, a former gubernatorial candidate and Biden supporter.

And for many voters focused on electability, he’s also the candidate who they see as most capable of taking on Trump.

“At the end of the day, what matters for me is whether or not they can beat Trump,” Lawrence Davis, 51, an adjunct professor who lives in Sumter County, South Carolina, told Vox last fall. “Based on ... who can beat Trump, my candidate is Joe Biden, Biden all the way.”

Although he’s been called out for spending less time campaigning in the state than competitors like Steyer, it appears that the longstanding connections he’s developed with residents in South Carolina have outweighed these concerns.

“We can’t afford to get this wrong. I think we’re going to support somebody we know. And the only person who’s favored by this analysis is Joe Biden,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Biden supporter.

These results set Biden up for Super Tuesday

Biden’s victory puts him in a much stronger position going into Super Tuesday, when more than 1,300 delegates will be at stake, and several southern states — like North Carolina — will be voting as well.

Typically, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia — all states which have similarly diverse electorates — vote the same way for the Democratic nominee, a trend that’s now in Biden’s favor.

“The organizing you would bring to South Carolina are the same you would to other Super Tuesday states,“ Clay Middleton, a Democratic strategist and former adviser for Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign, told Vox.

Super Tuesday, however, does bring a new challenge in the form of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s sought to frame himself as a moderate and appeal to black voters as well. March 3 marks the first set of races when Bloomberg will officially be on the ballot.

Biden’s decisive win in South Carolina indicates that he’s still the candidate who’s most likely to pick up support from black voters moving forward: Older African Americans, especially, are a group that’s been loyal to the former Vice President and they remain integral to the success of his campaign.

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