COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Joe Biden bet the balance of his five-decade political career on winning South Carolina — and hit the jackpot.
After months of drooping poll numbers, tortured debate performances, and awkward exchanges on the stump, the state’s voters came to his rescue in Saturday’s Democratic primary in a big way, handing him a victory that creates some much-needed forward motion to the former frontrunner’s 2020 chances — and sets up a showdown with the current frontrunner, Bernie Sanders.
The former Vice President was expected to win South Carolina, but experts said he likely needed a convincing victory in the state he had staked his candidacy on following disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. His win was called as soon as polls closed at 7 p.m. on Saturday and as the night progressed it appeared that he was on track to win just shy of 50 percent of the vote in the state — nearly 30 points higher than Sanders.
Biden, in a fit of optimism, even mused on primary eve about what a “significant” victory in the state could do for his campaign.
He was well on his way there when House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), an elder statesman whose endorsement of Biden carried tremendous weight in the state, at the Carolina Volleyball Center, brought a smiling Biden, his wife, Jill, and his daughter, Ashley, onto the stage.
“Those of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden said.
His campaign, of course, had experienced every one of those in recent weeks, all the while assuring supporters, donors, and reporters — basically anyone else who would listen — that South Carolina was their firewall.
And it held. It held bigtime, not a joke.
“This campaign is taking off,” Biden said. “This is the moment to choose the path forward for our party. This is a moment and it's arrived. Maybe sooner than anyone guessed it would, but it's here. And the decisions Democrats make all across America next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what will get done.”
“If Democrats nominate me, “ he continued. “I believe we can beat Donald Trump.”
The celebratory mood may be short lived, however. Biden now must face Super Tuesday’s gauntlet of Mike Bloomberg’s hundreds of millions and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) movementum in the most important day of the Democratic primary so far.
Sanders, who was blown out by 47 points here in the 2016 primary, was trounced again, trailing Biden by nearly 30 points with 86 percent of the vote reported. But, the Vermont Independent was undeterred and in a speech to supporters in Virginia Beach, he reminded them of their recent victories — and told them not to be discouraged by the defeat.
“There are a lot of states [in] this country nobody wins them all,” he said. “I want to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory tonight. And now we're on to the Super Tuesday at Virginia.”
But shortly after acknowledging Biden’s win, he took a dig at his now-closest rival for the nomination.
“In order to defeat Trump, we are going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of this country,” he said. “And in my view, old fashion politics, the same old same old type of politics, that doesn't excite anybody that doesn't energize anybody not is not going to be the campaign that beats Trump.”
Sanders’ supporters were less charitable.
“I mean, yeah that sucks,” Mathew Newbill, a young Sanders supporter from Chesapeake, Virginia. “I really think Biden’s a garbage candidate.”
But like Sanders, he was sure that his candidate would rebound.
“So, really all it can do is hurt Bernie a little bit,” he said. “But it probably won’t do much for Biden’s campaign at all.”
Biden fended off a determined effort from billionaire Tom Steyer who came into South Carolina with little to show for the millions in advertising he’d poured into other early voting states. But Steyer’s focus was clearly on South Carolina, where he hoped his support for reparations and approach to race issues would resonate more than in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
It did not and Steyer, who spent upwards of $13 million in the Palmetto State, according to fivethirtyeight.com, dropped out shortly after it became clear he would not make the 15 percent threshold needed to earn delegates.
It wasn’t lost on some in the crowd what they had done today, resurrecting a campaign that had bet its future on the state’s diverse Democratic base.
What happened in the other states didn’t really matter to voters here said Clint Scoville, a Biden supporter in his 50’s. Biden may not have had a whole lot of ads, he said, but people already felt comfortable with him.
“I’m thinking if he probably had not won South Carolina I think that he wouldn’t be able to get any financial support,” Scoville said. “I think the financial support would have dried up on him.”
His campaign is already trying to build off Saturday’s win ahead of the Democratic delegate gold mine awaiting Tuesday. A source familiar with his high-dollar fundraising efforts said the reaction was “badass” on Saturday night, with new potential donors coming forward to offer help to the campaign. And before the results were announced, a Biden-supporting super PAC revealed that it was putting another $1.2 million in advertising in southern states, including North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas.
Other efforts, aimed more at weakening Sanders than boosting any specific candidate, may also end up benefiting Biden. Big Tent Project, a dark money group formed by moderate Democrats, plans to drop $4 million in digital ads in several Super Tuesday that, among other things, paint Sanders as a “socialist” who will ultimately lose to President Donald Trump.
Biden himself campaigned in Raleigh, North Carolina at Saint Augustine University, an HBCU, before heading back for his party in Columbia Saturday night. As Biden sat on a stool on stage and waited to speak, a woman could be heard saying “we believe in you Joe!”
"The full comeback starts in South Carolina and then goes here on Tuesday," Biden said.
He later added: “I promise you this. If North Carolina stands with us on Tuesday, there will be no stopping us from there (to the nomination) and we will win the presidency.”
Sunday’s schedule takes him to a church service in Selma, Alabama and then to Norfolk, Virginia for a rally alongside Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) who endorsed him Friday. A pair of events await in delegate rich Texas on Monday followed by Biden appearing in California on the biggest day of the election season yet.
Saturday’s victory also marks a historic night for Biden’s long simmering presidential ambitions. Despite running for president three times, the Delaware Democrat had never stayed in the race long enough to win a presidential primary or caucus as a candidate.
Biden had long claimed his support with black voters shows he is the most electable general election candidate. And though his overall electability argument still appears to have taken a hit from his lack of success in the first two voting states, South Carolina’s more diverse Democratic electorate didn’t flee his side even as his chances at becoming president appeared to be dwindling.
The former Vice President’s sometimes awkward style of campaigning, the type of style where he’d give wandering answers that went in often unpredictable directions, caused some voters to come away disappointed in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Then came Saturday, and South Carolina.
Anne Weaver, a 60-year-old Democratic voter, proudly pointed to her Obama/Biden pin as she left the Biden victory party, but was just as joyful about the Biden pin just above it.
A night like this "was always going to happen here," she said, as she mused that Steyer and Bloomberg should drop out because "they're wasting their money."
"It's going to be him and Sanders, obviously," she said. "Everyone else is just muddying the water."
Elizabeth Adams, a 50-year-old Biden supporter stood lingering on the edge of the crowd, considering if the win tonight will give Biden the push he needs for Super Tuesday.
“I’m hoping it will,” Adams said.
—with additional reporting from Sam Stein, Jackie Kucinich, Hanna Trudo