GREENVILLE, S.C. (Reuters) - An outpouring of black voter support propelled Joe Biden to a convincing projected victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday, resurrecting his faltering White House bid and giving the former vice president a chance to present himself as the moderate alternative to front-runner Bernie Sanders.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden listens to the introductory speakers during a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
Television networks and Edison Research, which conducted exit polls, projected Biden as the winner as soon as voting closed in the Southern state, while U.S. Senator Sanders of Vermont appeared headed to a distant second-place finish.
Exit polls showed the former vice president beating Sanders among a broad range of demographic and ideological groups, including those who identified themselves as “very liberal.”
With 30% of the precincts reporting, Biden had 52% of the vote to Sanders’ 18%. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer had 12% and all of the other contenders were well behind with single digits.
The win gives Biden a burst of momentum as the Democratic race to find a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump broadens quickly, with Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states in three days that will award one-third of the available national delegates.
The commanding margin will allow Biden, vice president under former President Barack Obama, to argue he is the most electable moderate alternative to Sanders, a democratic socialist whose surging campaign has rattled a Democratic establishment worried he is too far left to beat Trump in November.
It will also raise questions about the continued viability of most of the other contenders. Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar all were projected to finish well out of the running, with dwindling chances to mount a comeback.
Biden and all of the Democratic contenders will face competition for the first time on Tuesday from billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has blanketed the country with half a billion dollars in advertising. Bloomberg skipped the first four state primaries.
Biden desperately needed a win after poor showings in the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and finishing second in Nevada. He had viewed South Carolina, where his popularity among the state’s big bloc of black voters proved decisive, as his “firewall” against disaster.
Sanders, with his unabashed populist message of ending economic inequality, had grown stronger with each contest, finishing in a virtual tie for first in Iowa with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg, before notching wins in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Biden, a mainstream Democrat with decades’ experience on the U.S. political stage, was powered in South Carolina by support from a broad range of voters, including men and women, black and white, middle-aged and old, those with and without college degrees, independent, liberal and conservative, exit polls showed.
The data showed him with 60% of African-American support, well ahead of 17% for Sanders. It also showed Biden beating Sanders, who has based his argument on his ability to bring out new voters, among those who were voting in a Democratic primary for the first time.
Biden was projected to win 15 of the 54 pledged delegates in South Carolina, with more to be allocated. No other candidate was projected to have won any delegates in the state. Heading into the primary, Sanders had won 54 delegates, Buttigieg 26 and Biden 15.
NARROWING PATH FOR RIVALS
Biden was not the only candidate for whom South Carolina and Super Tuesday may represent make-or-break moments in what has been a frequently shifting campaign.
Buttigieg and Senators Klobuchar of Minnesota and Warren of Massachusetts appeared likely to finish well out of the running in South Carolina, where exit polls showed them finishing in low single digits among black voters.
The projected third-place finish for Steyer came after he spent heavily on ads in South Carolina - but it was unclear if he could compete nationally.
Nearly eight of 10 voters in South Carolina said they had a favourable view of Biden, compared with five of 10 who saw rival Sanders favourably, exit polls showed.
The polls also found about six of 10 of South Carolina voters said influential black congressman James Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden on Wednesday was a factor in their decision.
About half want a candidate who will return to Obama’s policies, a key argument of Biden.
Reporting by Joseph Ax and Trevor Hunnicutt in Greenville, South Carolina; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Saint George, South Carolina, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Writing by John Whitesides and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Jonathan Oatis