Joe Biden’s First-Ever Primary Win Is a Big One

“If Joe Biden spends too much more time in South Carolina,” one Biden supporter said yesterday, “we’re going to give him a South Carolina driver’s license and start making him pay South Carolina taxes.”

Matt Rourke / AP

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Joe Biden had taken blow after blow.

The former vice president had come in fourth place in the debacle that was the Iowa caucus, and it looked like he might do the same, or worse, in New Hampshire. So before the results putting him in fifth place were announced, he fled, literally, to the state whose support he needed most: South Carolina.

And tonight South Carolinians delivered Biden a decisive victory, with most of the major news networks projecting him as the winner as soon as polls closed. It is his first presidential-primary win in three runs for president over more than 30 years, one he hopes will prove his continued popularity with core Democratic constituencies and reinvigorate his flailing campaign.

Biden is popular with black voters—he enjoyed roughly 50 percent of their support nationwide when he joined a crowded presidential field in April, according to CNN polls. So the question was never whether Biden could get black voters to support him, but rather whether he could keep them throughout the primary. Black people make up the majority of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate, and polls as early as May showed him with a commanding lead among that group.

As Biden was counting on that support to hold, other candidates were steadily chipping away at it. Tom Steyer, one of the Democratic race’s two billionaires, blanketed the state with nearly $13 million in television advertising alone, and established a significant ground operation. Bernie Sanders’s outreach to black voters also began to make a dent in Biden’s support.

But after escaping New Hampshire, Biden began to steady his campaign. He came in second place in Nevada, though well behind Sanders, then prepared for a crucial debate in South Carolina.

“He has to own that debate stage,” Clay Middleton, who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in South Carolina in 2016, told me before Tuesday’s debate. “He has to be the Joe Biden that people fell in love with. Be the Joe Biden that Barack Obama selected to be his partner.” That debate was Biden’s chance to issue his closing argument—not just for South Carolina, but for the Super Tuesday states that will vote next week. It was the last time most voters would be focused on the race before heading to the polls. His hope was that a good performance would reassure voters that they didn’t need to look elsewhere—to Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar—for a moderate candidate who could beat Donald Trump. And crucially, a debate victory might help his campaign raise desperately needed cash.

The debate was a loosely moderated mess, but it did lead to a $2 million surge in fundraising for Biden. In the days that followed, several polls showed Biden with a comfortable lead in South Carolina. Then he got a major endorsement. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, whose word carries outsize weight in the state, announced his support. “In South Carolina, we choose presidents,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Now Joe Biden is in South Carolina, and we are going to launch him to the White House.”

As other candidates crisscrossed the country, Biden buoyed his support here with a full slate of events—from Charleston to Columbia to Spartanburg. “If Joe Biden spends too much more time in South Carolina,” Thomas McElveen, a state senator from Sumter, said when introducing Biden at a campaign event there yesterday, “we’re going to give him a South Carolina driver’s license and start making him pay South Carolina taxes.”

Some voters responded positively to Biden’s efforts. I met Claudie Hemingway, a 43-year-old educator, outside of Biden’s rally in Conway on Thursday. Vivica A. Fox had directed a Q&A session with the former vice president, who, feeling his front-runner mojo coming back, took time to answer questions with the verve that had gone missing in Iowa and New Hampshire. “He’s a dynamic person,” Hemingway told me. “He’s been there, and he knows. He knows the job.”

Time and again, voters I spoke with grabbed on to the idea that Clyburn has repeated time and again. “We know Joe,” Clyburn said during his speech endorsing Biden. “But more importantly, he knows us.”

Knowing someone, and being comfortable with them, isn’t always enough, though. In Sumter, one voter, Marybeth Berry, pressed Biden on her biggest concern. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, she said, have an obvious fire to them, a clear reason why they are running. “What is your fire?” she asked Biden.

“Honor and decency,” he responded.

Tonight’s win will catapult Biden to at least second in the delegate hunt. He’ll gain at least 20 of South Carolina’s 54 delegates, according to network-news estimates. But winning South Carolina may not be enough for him. Bloomberg has been employing Steyer’s South Carolina strategy nationwide, flooding markets with TV ads. Sanders is showing no signs of slowing down, and is well ahead in polls of delegate-rich California, which votes Tuesday. Biden still needs to worry about whether his fundraising operation will be able to sustain his candidacy, and whether he will be able to get young people to support him in any significant number.

But for now, he’s celebrating.

Biden was more animated than he's been in months when he took the stage in Columbia tonight, beaming. "My buddy Jim Clyburn here brought me back!" he exclaimed. The pundits declared him dead, Biden said, "but we are very much alive!"

Perhaps Biden was always destined to win South Carolina. I met Diane—who declined to share her last name, because she works at a correctional facility—walking into a Buttigieg rally in Columbia on Friday. She mentioned that she was really excited about the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor. He is a dynamic speaker, Diane said, and she would be more than happy to vote for him in November. When I asked her whether that meant she would vote for him on primary day, she said no, she had already voted.

“Who did you vote for?” I asked.

“Joe Biden,” she said. “He’s got it back. He’s got the drive back.”