COLUMBIA, South Carolina—The people filling Joe Biden’s election night party weren’t grimacing as polls were about to close this time. With MSNBC playing in University of South Carolina volleyball arena, the Biden fans counted down the final seconds until 7 o’clock, when polls closed. There was no lag between the end of their countdown and NBC News’ official projection: Joe Biden had taken South Carolina, his first win in a presidential primary or caucus in 33 years of running for president.
The atmosphere in the room when Biden came into the room to deliver his victory speech 90 minutes later also felt different. It was a moment of rapturous excitement and purpose for a candidate who, for much of the last year, had been searching for both.
“To all of those of you who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden said. “Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead. Now, thanks you all of you, the heart of the Democratic Party, we won—and we won big.”
He did. It was a dominant performance, exceeding that of Bernie Sanders in winning the Nevada caucuses the Saturday before. According to early exit polls, black voters made up nearly 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in the state—and Biden won, in turn, about 60 percent of black voters, with runners-up Sanders and Tom Steyer each trailing him in that demographic by about 40 percentage points. Steyer, who had staked his campaign on a strong showing in South Carolina, announced he was dropping out of the race following a distant third-place finish.
Biden was by far the best-liked candidate among South Carolinians, as three-quarters of voters said they viewed him favorably, compared to roughly half viewing Sanders that way.* Biden won about half of those identifying as either moderate or conservative, and this was a more moderate electorate than those of other early states—half of South Carolina voters described themselves as moderate or conservative, while that number was 33 percent in Nevada entrance polls and 39 percent in New Hampshire exit polls.
South Carolina was always a good fit for Biden with its older, more moderate, and majority-black electorate. But what happened in the last week, after he was only holding onto his polling lead in the state by the skin of his teeth? There was one startling note in the exit polling data: About half of voters said that the Biden endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip and the most widely respected figure in South Carolina Democratic politics, was an “important factor” in their decision. No other endorsement has had as powerful an impact this cycle, and maybe in any cycle within memory. In his speech, Biden credited Clyburn, who “lifted me and this campaign on his shoulders.”
In a state that Republicans have taken in every presidential election from 1980 on, where Donald Trump won by 14 points in 2016, the primary was South Carolina Democrats’ only real chance to have leverage over the presidential race. They apparently used it to bend the campaign back, at least for the weekend, to where it stood when Biden entered the race in April as the instant front-runner—before anyone was paying attention to Pete Buttigieg, and before the billionaire entrants tried to float themselves into contention on a flood of campaign spending. Michael Bloomberg wasn’t on the ballot in South Carolina, but Biden unambiguously won back the voters who had been gravitating in the polling to the free-spending Steyer.
Sanders’ Nevada win, rather than boosting him to a victory in South Carolina that might have effectively sealed his control of the race, may have woken up moderates to the fact that he was on his way to the nomination, sparking a flight to safety and familiarity. Sanders hasn’t seen much of a Nevada bounce at all, and he received more scrutiny in Tuesday’s debate than he had in any debate previous.
Mike Kelly, a Biden voter I spoke with at Biden’s rally Saturday night, said he made up his mind “this morning” after having considered Biden, Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. What was the selling point?
“I’m just hoping that somebody can beat Trump,” he said. “It’s that simple.” Kelly described himself as a centrist who likes some of Trump’s policies, including those on immigration. “He’s just an asshole.”
Mohamad Kaba, a Biden canvasser from Maryland, told me he was devoted to Joe Biden “for life,” he said. He had traveled to both New Hampshire and South Carolina to support the campaign. He couldn’t believe the difference he got in reception between the two states.
“Here? People love him,” Kaba said. One major thing he’d hear knocking doors, he said, was the “fact that he worked with Obama, and people want him to improve Obama’s health care, to make it better. People love him.” Biden’s association with Barack Obama wasn’t evidence of the softness of his support, as if his core supporters would all flock away once they learned more about Biden’s record on its own terms or they considered other candidates. It was evidence of the strength of it.
Biden wasn’t subtle in setting himself up as prime alternative to Sanders in his speech, and called on the party to unite behind him—quickly. Addressing “Democrats across America, especially those who will be voting on Super Tuesday,” Biden said that “the decisions that Democrats make all across America in the next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what we get done.”
“If Democrats,” he said, “want as a nominee someone who will build upon Obamacare and not scrap it; take on the NRA and gun manufacturers, not protect them … and if the Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us.”
For one night, at least, Biden was gaining on Bernie Sanders in the delegate count—and in one fell swoop, surpassing him in the national popular vote. The question is whether South Carolina’s results can convince the rest of the country to reconsider the value of the race’s best-known figure before Super Tuesday arrives—and how wide the delegate gap will be between Biden and Sanders by the end of the night. The good news is there’s barely time to speculate about it. You can just wait 72 hours and find out.
Correction, March 1, 2020: This article originally misstated that Sanders was the most-liked candidate among South Carolinians. It was Biden.