Joe Biden decisively won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, delivering the former vice president a much-needed victory that he hopes will mark the beginning of a comeback for his presidential campaign.
With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Biden was winning with 48.6 percent of the vote, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) far behind with around 20 percent of the vote. The Associated Press called the race for Biden almost immediately after polls closed at 7 p.m. ET.
Biden’s victory is his first since voting began in the Democratic nominating contest earlier this month and showcased the strong support he had among African Americans, who make up a majority of the Democratic electorate in the state.
It follows lackluster finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a distant second-place showing in Nevada last week that eroded his standing in polls and raised questions about his electability.
Biden thanked supporters at a rally in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday night.
“Thanks to all of you — the heart of the Democratic Party — we just won and we won big,” he said.
The former vice president and his allies argued heading into Saturday that a victory in the Palmetto State would effectively act as a reset for his campaign and prove him to be the best candidate to assemble a diverse coalition of voters needed to recapture the White House in November.
Biden’s win on Saturday owes in no small part to turnout in the primary. Early exit polls show that the electorate was more diverse and more moderate than in the first three nominating contests. Black voters once again made up a majority of the primary electorate — about 55 percent.
But the electorate was somewhat whiter than in 2016, when black voters accounted for about 61 percent of those who cast ballots in the South Carolina primary.
Fewer voters who describe themselves as liberal turned out to vote on Saturday than in years past, exit polls show, a decline that ultimately worked against Sanders, the progressive firebrand who has supplanted Biden atop many polls in recent weeks.
Only about half of the electorate on Saturday identified as liberal. In years past, those voters made up a majority of the electorate.
With his win in South Carolina, Biden will blunt some of Sanders's momentum in the race, following the senator's victories in New Hampshire and Nevada and his close second-place finish in Iowa.
Sanders's series of wins allowed him to wrestle the front-runner mantle from Biden, who was viewed as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee for most of last year.
In a sign that the Vermont senator was not anticipating a victory in Saturday's primary, he spent the day campaigning in Virginia, one of 14 states that will hold a primary on Super Tuesday, March 3, and that polls have suggested is more competitive for him.
In his victory speech, Biden did not mention any of his rivals for the Democratic nomination by name, but took several implicit swipes at Sanders.
“Democrats want to nominate someone who will build on ObamaCare not scrap it,” he said. “Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat.”
“We have the option to win it big or lose it big,” he continued. “That’s the choice. We have to build on the legacy of the most successful president of our lifetime, Barack Obama.”
Biden’s win in South Carolina wasn’t entirely unexpected. He has long led polls in the state, often by double digits, and his campaign has pointed to South Carolina from the beginning as a firewall for the former vice president, given his strong support among black voters, who make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate here.
Despite his win, Biden faces several challenges in the days and weeks ahead. With Super Tuesday just three days away, he will have to ramp up his efforts quickly if he hopes to compete with Sanders, who is leading polls in some of the most delegate-rich states that vote that day, including California and Texas.
Biden was relatively slow to step up his efforts in Super Tuesday states, and his campaign has spent significantly less in those states than most of his top rivals for the Democratic nomination.
He is also competing with several candidates, including former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), for the support of moderate voters, who have yet to coalesce behind a single alternative to Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who is campaigning on a message of radical change.
One more factor adding to the unpredictability of the race is the candidacy of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He only entered the nominating contest in November, but has gained polling strength in several Super Tuesday states after pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of his personal fortune into advertising and other operations.
Whether Bloomberg’s competitiveness in polling will translate to votes, however, is unclear. He notably skipped the first four nominating contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and there are signs that a bungled performance in a Democratic debate in Las Vegas earlier this month may have taken a toll on his support.
Biden’s win in South Carolina may help him in other southern states with large proportions of black voters, such as Alabama and North Carolina, both of which vote Tuesday. Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, said that Biden’s victory on Saturday would also likely boost him in Texas, where he’s trailing Sanders.
Biden also scored two high-profile endorsements in Virginia in recent days. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) threw his support behind the former vice president on Friday, and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe endorsed Biden on Saturday, minutes after he was projected the winner of the South Carolina primary.
To be sure, there was some uncertainty about Biden’s strength in South Carolina in the weeks leading up to the primary.
Polls conducted in the wake of the nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire showed a tightening race in the Palmetto State, with Sanders coming within a few points of Biden in some surveys and billionaire activist Tom Steyer gaining strength.
But two things in recent days helped bolster Biden’s support in South Carolina: a strong performance at a Tuesday night debate in Charleston, S.C., and a last-minute endorsement on Wednesday from Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the highest-ranking black member of Congress and the most influential Democrat in South Carolina.
Biden will travel on Sunday to Alabama and Virginia to begin his Super Tuesday campaign. Thanks to South Carolina, he will have a win to talk about.
“This is a place where people come to reset their campaigns and reshape what the rest of the process looks like,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “And I think this could be both of those things for Joe Biden.”