COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former vice president Joe Biden scored a do-or-die victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, giving his struggling campaign a much-needed shot of momentum heading into the Super Tuesday contests in two days.
With Black voters getting their first major say in the Democratic race, Biden’s landslide victory bolstered his case that he is the top moderate challenger to liberal front-runner Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and is the strongest candidate to defeat President Trump.
With most of the returns counted, Biden had about 49 percent, followed by Sanders at 20 percent and billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who despite getting 11 percent of the vote, said he would drop out of the race. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg was in fourth with nearly 8 percent and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who put great effort into winning support among Black voters, was headed toward a disappointing fifth place finish, with around 7 percent.
“You brought me back,” Biden said to hundreds of cheering supporters at a college sports arena. “Now thanks to all of you — the heart of the Democratic Party — we just won and we won big. We can believe again, we’re back at the top, we’re back in the race.”
The celebration might be brief. Biden now has to carry that momentum into Super Tuesday, with polls putting Sanders in the lead in California and Texas, while former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is on the ballot for the first time and challenging him for moderate voters.
Still, the South Carolina victory was a relief — and a campaign-saver — for Biden. It was the first presidential contest he’s ever won in three attempts at the White House, and it came after he guaranteed in recent days that he would win here.
Biden so far has done little campaigning or advertising in the Super Tuesday states. But within minutes of being declared the victor in South Carolina, he received the endorsement of former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who will join with the vice president at a campaign event in Norfolk on Sunday. His backing could help in Virginia, which has the fourth-most delegates at stake on Super Tuesday.
“I think Joe Biden has the best chance of winning Virginia in the general election,” McAuliffe told CNN. “I think he has the best shot of beating Donald Trump, and most importantly not only winning the presidency but helping us in Senate and House members.”
South Carolina’s 54 convention delegates are the biggest haul of the early-voting states. Still, combined those four contests account for just 155 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. Contrast that to Super Tuesday, when a whopping 1,357 delegates will be awarded. Sanders is not only ahead in California and Texas, he is running neck-and-neck with Warren in her home state of Massachusetts, a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll showed Saturday.
Bloomberg entered the race only in November as Biden was losing support in the polls as the leading moderate candidate. Bloomberg skipped the first four contests and has been campaigning and advertising heavily in the states that vote Tuesday. He appeared Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.
Big victories in South Carolina propelled Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 to the Democratic nomination. About 60 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate are Black, and winning here demonstrates support from that key component of the party’s base.
Biden has had strong backing from Black voters over his long Senate career, and particularly after serving as Obama’s vice president.
Sanders was widely touted in South Carolina as having had the best campaign organization, with a network of staff, volunteers, and surrogates that fanned out across the state over the course of a year. But it didn’t translate into a strong performance for him. At a rally in Virginia Beach, Va., Saturday night, he acknowledged that “you cannot win 'em all.”
“A lot of states out there, and tonight we did not win in South Carolina,” Sanders said. "And that will not be the only defeat, there are a lot of states in this country, nobody wins them all. I want to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory tonight, and now we head to Super Tuesday in Virginia.”
Steyer, who had not been a factor in the early contests, spent tens of millions in South Carolina cultivating Black voters. Although he was on track for a comfortable third-place showing, he under-performed given all his spending and announced he was suspending his campaign.
“There’s no question today that this campaign, we were disappointed with where we came out,” Steyer told supporters in Columbia. “I said, if I didn’t see a path to winning, that I’d suspend my campaign. And honestly, I can’t see a path where I can win the presidency.”
Biden enjoyed tremendous familiarity in South Carolina, thanks to his association with Obama and longtime friendships with South Carolina politicians. At a campaign stop on Friday, a local official who introduced Biden joked that he visited the state so many times that soon they will give him a driver’s license and make him start paying taxes.
Biden got a major boost on Wednesday when he received the endorsement of Representative Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in the state. Clyburn announced his long-anticipated decision saying, “We know Joe but more importantly, Joe knows us.”
Clyburn introduced Biden at his victory party Saturday night.
“This election, this year, is about the goodness of America, and we have as our candidate a real good man,” Clyburn said.
Margie Hammond, 68, of McBee, came to the party with a photo of Obama that she had signed by the former president in Charlotte, the night before he was elected. She clutched it Saturday as she waved an American flag. She cheered when television screens showed Biden as the early projected winner.
“I already got [Obama’s] signature, now I just need Joe’s signature, before he becomes president,” she said.
For Warren, South Carolina was a major disappointment given her campaign’s emphasis on issues of race.
“I will be the first to say that the first four contests haven’t gone exactly as I’d hope,” Warren told supporters at an event in Houston Saturday night. "Super Tuesday is three days away. We want to gain as many delegates to the convention as we can — from California to right here in Texas. My campaign is built for the long haul — and we’re looking forward to these big contests.”
In interviews at polls in South Carolina on Saturday, many voters seemed to be second-guessing themselves, voting not for their preferred candidate, but for one they thought would fare best against Trump. This strategy seemed to give Biden an edge.
"I voted for the person that I thought can beat Trump," said Elizabeth Fryga, 73, of Columbia, referring to Biden. "I agree probably more with other people."
Jonathan Bradley, 29, of Columbia, said he cares most about creating universal health care, a key part of Sanders’ campaign. But Bradley is worried how Sanders might fare in Midwestern swing states, so he voted for Biden.
"I'm just looking for who can actually win the election," he said. "The culture here is very pro-Biden."
Others talked of connection with Biden that made him their first choice.
“I liked some of what the others said; it’s just that closeness I feel with Obama,” said Alvin Long, 83, who came to vote wearing an Obama hat and a T-shirt decorated with the faces of Obama and his wife and two daughters.
“Black and white water fountains, I’ve seen it all,” he said about growing up in South Carolina during segregation. “If Donald Trump stays in there, it’s like starting all over again.”
Globe correspondent Syd Stone contributed to this report.