WASHINGTON, D.C. – Vice President Joe Biden has for weeks looked to the black voters of South Carolina to hand a win to his flagging campaign. On Saturday, they delivered.
Biden won 61% of the votes cast by non-white voters, dominating a crowded Democratic field among a group that made up more than half of the electorate. Biden also performed strongly with older voters, women, regular churchgoers and moderates and conservatives, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of more than 1,400 voters in South Carolina's Democratic primary.
Biden's strength with the state's African American voters helped him edge out second-place finisher Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator won roughly 14% of African American voters, while billionaire Tom Steyer won 15%.
Sanders had hoped to chip away at Biden's support by winning over young black voters, who may be more likely to be drawn to Sanders' liberal politics and less likely to give Biden credit for serving as President Barack Obama's No. 2.
But black voters under 45 were roughly split between the two candidates — a sign that Sanders' appeal among younger voters had its limits in South Carolina. Sanders held on to young voters under 30 overall, but his grip weakened among liberal voters.
South Carolina’s primary provides the first deep look at the opinions and beliefs of African American voters, will continue to wield influence in upcoming races and will be critical to Democrats' chances of winning the White House. The inability of Democrats to mobilize African Americans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan likely contributed to their 2016 loss to President Donald Trump.
Biden has staked his campaign on mobilizing these voters and harkening to the legacy of the nation's first non-white president. It's a message that appeared to carry special appeal in South Carolina, where voters held a greater sense of nostalgia for the Obama presidency than voters in earlier contests.
Forty-five percent of voters in South Carolina wanted to return to the politics of the past, compared with about a third in Iowa and New Hampshire. That includes the 52% of African American voters who said they want a Democratic presidential nominee who would emulate Obama's presidency. Overall, Biden won 65% of voters who preferred a return to politics before Trump.
Compared with Iowa and New Hampshire, where Biden never placed in the top three, South Carolina delivered some built-in demographic advantage for the former vice president.
Its voters were somewhat more likely to identify as moderate or conservative — 7 in 10 using either label. They were less likely to hold a college degree. More than half were nonwhite, compared with roughly 9 in 10 white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But even among liberals, college graduates and white voters, Biden fared somewhat better on Saturday than he did in the previous contests.
White voters gave just a slight advantage to Biden over Sanders. Biden beat Sanders handily among women, and by a slightly narrower margin among men.
Biden won support from more than half of moderate and conservative voters, a group that has previously been divided between Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have struggled to attract non-white voters — and showed no real progress Saturday. Buttigieg managed to get just 3% of the non-white vote. Klobuchar, whose support among all voters in South Carolina was in the low single digits, drew a negligible share of this group.
Among self-described liberals, about a third backed Sanders, who had been leading the pack after previous contests, only a slightly higher share than for Biden.
About half of South Carolina voters say they attend church services at least once a month; Biden won a majority.
On issues, South Carolina's voters were more focused on health care than voters in other early states. About 4 in 10 called it the most important issue. Twenty-one percent viewed the economy as the top priority, while 14% identified climate change. Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire put greater emphasis on climate change and less importance on the economy.
As Super Tuesday looms with 14 states and one territory voting, it’s unclear just how much more important TV ads are over name recognition.
Steyer pumped money into ads in South Carolina, while media mogul and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — worth about $60 billion — has been doing so nationwide. But voters are unsure whether having a financial titan challenging Trump, a reputed billionaire, in November's election would be helpful.
Only 21% said a billionaire would have an easier time against Trump, compared with 55% who said it would make no difference.
After finishing third in South Carolina, Steyer dropped out Saturday night.
AP VoteCast is a survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press and Fox News. The survey of 1,499 voters in South Carolina was conducted for seven days, concluding as polls closed. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The survey is based on interviews with a random sample of registered voters drawn from the state voter file. The margin of sampling error for voters is estimated to be plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”