Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had all the momentum going into Saturday’s South Carolina primary, but he could not channel that in a way that put a dent in former vice president Joe Biden’s support with black voters — and that alone makes Biden a real threat to Sanders’s odds of winning the nomination.
The contest — the first presidential primary or caucus to feature a majority of black voters — showed that the former vice president was still competitive in the race for the White House after three relatively poor showings in other states and some recent polling suggesting that Sanders had over taken him in the national lead.
Since early in the election, the Sanders campaign has pushed back on the idea that the lawmaker had little black support and has regularly argued that it was the only campaign bolstered by a multicultural movement of diverse groups on the left. That idea was grounded in history: Black voters were a particularly weak spot for Sanders in the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton.
Before Sanders won the Nevada contest, with a big boost from Latino voters, Nina Turner, co-chair of the Sanders campaign, argued on NPR that his performance among voters of color in the first two states signaled he had made inroads: “We know both Iowa and New Hampshire were overwhelmingly white states, even though in both of those states, the people of color who do live there should not be dismissed.”
But the black population in those states is so small, entrance and exit polls don’t provide enough data to confirm that and didn’t tell us much about what to expect after. South Carolina is a different story — it gave us plenty of reason to think Sanders still lags with black voters — arguably the most influential demographic in the Democratic Party.
Before South Carolina, the Sanders team went all out in its effort to win black voters. The campaign filled the airwaves with black surrogates and invested in its ground game in the southern state. It looked to capitalize off its national momentum from previous strong performances and sought to keep issues that are important to African Americans in the conversation in national debates. But ultimately Biden’s support — rooted in part in the lawmaker’s second-in-command position to America’s first black president — could not be overcome.
Biden argued during his speech Saturday after polls closed that Democratic voters wanted their nominee to be a Democrat — a swipe at Sanders’s status as an independent, which has constantly been an issue for some liberal voters fearful that his loyalty will not be to Democrats if he is not their nominee.
And Biden’s victory is also a reminder that moving forward, popularity with young voters — including young voters of color — may not translate into the type of showing Sanders needs to get a majority of Democratic delegates. Previous Post polling showed that Sanders is popular with young voters. And my reporting in Charleston a week before the primary supported the belief that young voters were looking for a new direction that challenged the status quo.
But more than 7 in 10 South Carolina primary voters were age 45 or older, the highest for any Democratic contest so far. Despite the state being well populated with college students and young adults, these voters did not make up a significant enough percentage of the electorate to deliver Sanders a fourth win.
Biden in the days before the race secured perhaps the most important endorsement in the state, from House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a tremendously influential figure among South Carolina Democrats.
Investor Tom Steyer had been gaining ground with black voters after spending millions on advertisements targeting the influential group. And Sanders’s performance in previous contests threatened to eat away at the lead Biden had with black voters. Clyburn sought to clarify things for those voters who remained uncertain.
The Wednesday before the primary, Clyburn appeared with the former vice president at an event in North Charleston and told voters: “I can think of no one better suited, better prepared, I can think of no one with the integrity, no one more committed to the fundamental principles that make this country what it is than my good friend.”
According to preliminary exit poll results from Edison Research, nearly half of South Carolina voters said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their vote.
Sanders led among voters under 30 and those who never attended religious services. But Biden led in all 27 of the other groups asked about in Post exit polls, including those identifying as very liberal; those who listed race relations, climate change and income inequality as top issues; and those who prefer a candidate that could beat President Trump.
South Carolina did what Biden needed it to do: proved that his campaign was not one to be written off — and remains an attractive one among some of the voters Democrats need most to defeat Trump.
Former vice president Joe Biden decisively won South Carolina’s primary, his first victory, one that was a boost to him and a blow to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Read more about the win here and see full results.
The candidates: The major candidates competing on Super Tuesday are former vice president Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is on ballots for the first time.
Policy: Candidates have laid out where they stand on a number of issues. Answer some of the questions yourself and see who agrees with you.
Sign up: Want to understand what’s happening in the campaign? Sign up for The Trailer and get insights and news from across the country in your inbox three days a week.
The most important news stories of the day, curated by Post editors and delivered every morning.