COLUMBIA, S.C. ― The Palmetto State came through big for former Vice President Joe Biden, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time for his presidential ambitions.
With his campaign struggling to raise funds and Super Tuesday looming next week, Biden badly needed a win to reverse the narrative that he was on the ropes. He finally got it on Saturday.
It was the 77-year-old’s first primary victory after three separate presidential runs over three decades ― and he owed it in large part due to Black voters, who make up roughly two-thirds of registered Democrats in South Carolina.
“All of those of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” a fist-pumping Biden said in a fiery victory speech in Columbia. “Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead. Now thanks to all of you ... we’ve just won and we won big because of you.”
But if Saturday’s victory provided the new narrative ― “the Biden bounceback” ― that his campaign has been seeking after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, what remains less clear is how much of a boost it will give the former vice president, especially in nominating contests taking place on March 3.
Polling averages show Biden struggling badly in California, for example, where his cash-strapped campaign simply hasn’t had the resources to effectively compete. One recent poll actually had him under the 15% threshold needed to win any delegates at all, meaning he could get shut out of its huge delegate haul entirely. Polls have also shown him behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the front-runner in the race, in Texas.
If he does well on Super Tuesday, Sanders could take a huge step toward building an insurmountable delegate lead. The senator kept most of his focus on those contests this week, holding huge rallies in Massachusetts and Virginia. Although he placed a distant second in South Carolina, he picked up a few delegates in the state, denying Biden a clean sweep.
It’s looking increasingly likely that the nomination fight may come down to Biden and Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who is an Independent.
“If Democrats want a nominee who is a Democrat, a life-long Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, join us!” Biden said to applause on Saturday night. “We have the option of winning big or losing big. That’s the choice.”
Biden’s strength among Black voters could be the silver lining for his campaign, however, suggesting his path to the nomination lies in states across the South. Polls have shown him performing better in Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina, which also vote on Super Tuesday. The former vice president made a campaign stop in Raleigh on Saturday, where he told a large crowd that the Tar Heel State could prove pivotal to his chances of facing President Donald Trump in November.
“The full comeback starts in South Carolina,” Biden said at the event. “If North Carolina stands with us on Tuesday, there will be no stopping us from becoming the nominee.”
Biden’s victory in South Carolina had a lot to do with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). The highest-ranking Black member of Congress endorsed the former vice president, whom he calls a friend, earlier this week in an emotional news conference. The event that didn’t go unnoticed by South Carolina voters. Nearly half of those who showed up to cast their ballot on Saturday cited the endorsement as an important factor in their decision, according to an exit poll.
“My buddy, Jim Clyburn, you brought me back!” Biden exclaimed upon taking the stage on Saturday.
But Clyburn issued a public warning for Biden’s campaign ahead of the polls closing on Saturday, telling CNN that “retooling” was needed for his operation going forward.
“I did not feel free to speak about it or to even deal with it inside because I had not committed to his candidacy. ... I’m all in, and I’m not going to sit back idly and watch people mishandle this campaign,” Clyburn said. “I think we will have to sit down and get serious about how we retool this campaign ... we need to do some retooling in the campaign, no question about that.”
The congressman didn’t identify what exactly was lacking from Biden’s operation. But on Saturday, Biden’s campaign announced that Clyburn would be campaigning for him in Fayetteville, North Carolina, suggesting he would be taking an active role going forward.
“If he was good enough for the Barack Obama administration, he should be good enough for the next administration coming in.”
Still, Saturday was a much-needed boost to Biden’s campaign and to his supporters, many of whom gathered to watch the results and celebrate his success at a raucous election night party in Columbia.
“It’s a big deal. It lets you know it’s not over until it’s over. He won real big in South Carolina,” Mildred Gooden, a substitute teacher from Orangeburg, said as she watched coverage of the election on the screen.
Leonard Lee, a state park manager who flew from Boston to attend the party, said he felt the South Carolina win increased Biden’s chances of becoming the Democratic nominee.
“Polls can be manipulated by anything. I truly believe that as we leave South Carolina, you’re going to see things change a great deal,” he said.
Biden’s appeal to Black voters was palpable across the state. The overwhelming majority of voters at A.C. Corcoran Elementary School in North Charleston on Saturday afternoon were Black, and most said they were casting their votes for Biden.
“If he was good enough for the Barack Obama administration, he should be good enough for the next administration coming in,” said Ben Johnson, a retired firefighter.
Johnson did not have strong feelings about other candidates, including Sanders, who he said “would make a good president if he gets in there.”
However, Johnson worried that Sanders, who survived a heart attack in October but is just a year older than Biden, might not be able to endure the “stress” that comes with occupying the White House.
Biden has scheduled a stop in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, followed by events in Texas and California. The next few days will be critical to his campaign as fundraising picks up and pressure grows on other candidates to rethink their paths forward.
Daniel Marans contributed to this report.