By STEVE PEOPLES, MEG KINNARD and BILL BARROW
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Joe Biden scored a thundering victory Saturday in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on the strength of African American support, a decisive win that could force moderate rivals out of the race and blunt the rise of progressive leader Bernie Sanders.
Biden’s win came at a perilous moment in his 2020 bid as he needed an emphatic rebound after underwhelming performances this month in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The race now pivots to the 14 states from Maine to California that vote on Tuesday in what effect will be a national primary.
“We are very much alive,” Biden declared at an exuberant post-election rally. “For all of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind -- this is your campaign.”
Sanders claimed a distant second place, a loss that gave a momentary respite to anxious Democrats who feared that the democratic socialist would finish February with four consecutive top finishes that would make it difficult for anyone to overtake him.
The Associated Press declared Biden the winner just after the polls closed in South Carolina. The AP based the call on data from AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate conducted for the AP by NORC at the University of Chicago. The survey showed a convincing win for Biden.
Even with the victory, the shortcomings of Biden’s campaign remain, including a lack of robust funding and organization, and he will face for the first time Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who has spent more than $500 million advertising in the Super Tuesday states. Bloomberg announced his own plan to deliver a three-minute prime-time address Sunday night on two television networks. He didn’t say how much he paid for the air time, which is unprecedented in recent decades.
Biden is barely running any television advertising in Super Tuesday states. And both Sanders and Bloomberg have many more staff and volunteers.
But Biden is making an aggressive round of media appearances on Sunday in an effort to counter Bloomberg’s massive spending. He’s also working to secure endorsements from prominent Democrats and, shortly after the Saturday results were in, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe backed Biden.
The South Carolina primary was the first major test of the candidates’ appeal among black voters. That courtship will continue on Sunday when many of the White House hopefuls travel to Selma, Alabama, to participate in ceremonies commemorating civil rights heroism.
A number of states that vote on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, have substantial black populations.
One of the candidates who spent recent weeks wooing black voters, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, ended his campaign on Saturday after a disappointing third place finish. He spent more than $24 million on television advertising in South Carolina -- more than all of his rivals combined -- but never found a clear lane in the crowded contest.
Seven candidates remain in the Democrats’ quest to find the strongest possible nominee to take on President Donald Trump in November. They spent Saturday assessing the impact of Biden’s win.
Aides to Bloomberg’s campaign said they still believe the former New York mayor can win in a handful of states that vote on Super Tuesday, including Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina.
And Sanders was already looking ahead to the next contests as well, betting he can amass an insurmountable delegate lead. After two consecutive victories and a tie for the lead in Iowa, the 78-year-old Vermont senator’s confidence has surged.
Sanders congratulated Biden on his first win and said it was nothing for his own supporters to worry about.
“That will not be the only defeat. A lot of states in this country. Nobody wins them all,” he told a cheering crowd in Virginia. “Now we enter Super Tuesday.”
Pressure is building on lower performing candidates including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to justify staying in the race. None gave any indication on Saturday that they would exit before Tuesday.
Through four contests, Sanders has a healthy, but shrinking, delegate lead.
The AP has allocated at least 54 delegates to Sanders with a few more expected as South Carolina’s remaining votes dribble in. Biden vaulted past Buttigieg into second place with at least 44 delegates and he’s likely to get several more. Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar remain stuck at 26, eight and seven, respectively.
Trump was paying close attention to the Democratic race.
Speaking before conservative activists earlier in the day, the president conducted a poll of sorts by asking his audience to cheer for who would be the best Democratic contender for him to face in November.
Sanders was the clear winner.
“How could you be easier to beat than Joe? That guy can’t put two sentences together,” Trump told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. “But you know he is more down the middle. Everyone knows he’s not a communist and with Bernie there a real question about that.”
But Saturday was all about Biden and whether he might convince anxious establishment Democrats to rally behind him at last.
Elected officials inclined to embrace his moderate politics had been reluctant to support him after bad finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second place in Nevada last week. Yet fearing Sanders’ polarizing progressive priorities, they’re still searching for an alternative who’s viewed as a safer bet to defeat Trump in November.
Biden won 63% of the votes cast by African Americans. He also did well with older voters, women, moderates and conservatives and regular churchgoers, according to AP VoteCast.
Sanders earned the support of 14% of African American voters, while billionaire businessman Tom Steyer won 15%.
There was also evidence that Biden’s status as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president helped him win over African Americans.
VoteCast found that 45% voters in South Carolina wanted to return to the politics of the past, compared to about a third in Iowa and New Hampshire. That includes the 51% of African American voters who said they want a Democratic presidential nominee who would emulate the Obama presidency.
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez cautioned Democrats that it’s still early in their presidential primary.
Speaking at a North Carolina Democratic Party fundraising gala, Perez noted that to win the nomination, a Democrat must win 1,991 delegates — and only a fraction of those have been allocated in the party’s first four primaries.
“We have a long way to go,” he said.
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko, Will Weissert and Seth Borenstein in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina and Alexandra Jaffe in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.