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Buttigieg drops out of Democratic primary, reshaping the race ahead of Super Tuesday

Pete Buttigieg ended his presidential campaign during a speech to supporters Sunday in South Bend, Ind.
Pete Buttigieg ended his presidential campaign during a speech to supporters Sunday in South Bend, Ind.Santiago Flores/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg ended his presidential campaign Sunday after former vice president Joe Biden’s landslide South Carolina primary victory reshaped the Democratic race and boosted the former vice president heading into Super Tuesday.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who rose from obscurity in the past year to narrowly win the Iowa caucuses, dropped out after finishing a distant fourth in South Carolina with little support from the state’s Black voters and facing Biden’s new-found momentum.

“After a year of going everywhere, meeting everyone, defying every expectation, seeking every vote, the truth is the path has narrowed to a close for our candidacy, if not for our cause,” Buttigieg told supporters in South Bend Sunday night as they showered him with chants of “2024!”

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“Our goal has always been to help unify Americans to defeat Donald Trump and to win the era for our values," he said. "And so we must recognize that at this point in the race, the best way to keep faith with those goals and ideals is to step aside and help bring our party and our country together.”

As many old guard Democrats fret about democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders’ front-runner status, Biden’s big win opens up a path for him to coalesce support as the leading alternative to Sanders in a now slimmed-down field. Biden’s blowout victory also points to potential weaknesses in Sanders’ ability to attract Black voters.

But Biden still faces several dire challenges as the race barrels toward 14 coast-to-coast primaries on Tuesday. Despite pulling in $5 million in contributions in the 24 hours ending Sunday morning, his campaign lags well behind in the money race, resulting in patchy staffing and organization in key states. And former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who’s already spent half a billion dollars in advertising, will be on the ballot for the first time on Tuesday, with polls showing him siphoning off Black and more moderate voters Biden needs to win.

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The billionaire flexed his financial might Sunday night, booking three minutes in prime time on CBS and NBC to address the nation — including millions of Super Tuesday voters — about coronavirus.

Biden sought to quickly leverage his victory with free media appearances, giving a flurry of TV interviews Sunday in which he projected confidence about his chances in Super Tuesday states.

“All I know is I think we’re moving into constituencies that are constituencies that when they hear me, they’ve always been mine,” Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” listing his strength with working-class white voters, Black and Latino voters, and suburban women voters. “They’re places I’ve always been very strong my whole career.”

It’s unclear how much Biden will be boosted by Buttigieg’s departure, given that the former mayor’s largely college-educated and white supporters have been drawn to other candidates in the past, including Senator Elizabeth Warren. He’s the second candidate to drop out after South Carolina, with investor Tom Steyer doing so Saturday night after finishing third behind Biden and Sanders.

After strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg stumbled when the race moved to contests in more diverse Nevada and South Carolina. He got only 8 percent of the vote in Saturday’s primary, the first in the South, and exit polls showed he won just 3 percent of the Black vote there.

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Buttigieg, the first openly gay major party presidential candidate, leaves despite being third in total delegates with 26 behind Sanders’s 50 and Biden’s 48. On Sunday night, Buttigieg urged Democrats to pick a unifying leader who is not overly wrapped up in ideological battles, alluding to concerns he has voiced about Sanders.

“We need an approach strong enough not only to win the White House, but to hold the House, win the Senate, and send Mitch McConnell into retirement,” he said.

For Biden, it will be a tough battle to slow Sanders’ momentum on Tuesday.

While the former vice president is polling close to the top in six of Super Tuesday’s Southern states, including North Carolina and Alabama, Sanders is besting him in polls of delegate-rich Texas and California. Biden likely needs his South Carolina performance to at least boost him over the 15 percent threshold in California to prevent Sanders from gaining a runaway delegate lead. About 40 percent of the projected California voter pool has already mailed in their ballots, however, making capitalizing off his performance trickier for Biden.

“We’re looking forward to Super Tuesday,” Sanders said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday morning. “I think we’ve got a great chance to win in California, in Texas, in Massachusetts, and a number of states around the country.”

Sanders’ edge was further amplified when his campaign announced it raised $46.5 million in grass-roots donations in February, continuing his fund-raising dominance in the field. Biden said his campaign raised close to $18 million last month and his South Carolina win brought in some sorely-needed cash to his perpetually financially struggling campaign. Larry Rasky, the leader of a Biden-supporting super PAC, told the Globe that millions of dollars had also poured in since Biden’s South Carolina debate performance on Tuesday and that he is planning to use the funds to make ads featuring Biden’s South Carolina victory speech.

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“Now we’re in a position where we’re beginning to raise some real money and I feel good about where I’m going,” Biden said in another interview on Sunday.

He has also rolled out a slate of new endorsements in Super Tuesday states, including Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. Biden’s blockbuster endorser in South Carolina, Representative Jim Clyburn, is planning on campaigning for him in North Carolina.

But there are questions about whether the he can replicate his strength with Black voters in South Carolina, a state where he has a long history, to offset Sanders’ popularity with young voters and slow his momentum. Biden sharpened his criticism of Sanders in recent days, saying his democratic socialism is too risky in a general election against Trump. That was a message that resonated with many voters in South Carolina — and could in other states, as well.

“I think Bernie has some good ideas,” said Biden supporter Mel Butts, 70, of Summerville, S.C. at a political event last week. “The socialism part — that’s taking it a bit far.”

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Even those who supported Sanders’ agenda said they were scared to vote for him.

“I’m just looking for who can actually win the election,” said 29-year-old Jonathan Bradley, a white voter who supported Sanders’ calls for Medicare for All but backed Biden on Saturday.

South Carolina exit polls showed Sanders won 43 percent of young voters, including many young Black voters — the most of any candidate. But overall, Black voters picked Biden over Sanders four to one.

Michael Wukela, a spokesman for Sanders in South Carolina, said he believes Saturday’s results are unique to the state and don’t send an overall message about Sanders’ support among Black voters.

South Carolina was do-or-die for Biden and Steyer, so they poured all their recent energy into the state, Wukela argued. Sanders, meanwhile, was also focused on Super Tuesday states, diffusing his efforts.

“They absolutely put everything, in terms of resources, in terms of the candidate’s time [in the state],” he said.

Biden was also boosted by Clyburn’s influential endorsement, which likely doesn’t carry as much weight beyond South Carolina.

But Rasky dismissed the idea that Biden’s firewall stops at South Carolina’s borders. “I think we’re going to do very well wherever there’s a high concentration of African-American voters,” he said.

Biden’s allies are heavily hinting they’d like other candidates to bow out. “We would hope it would be logical for all of the moderate candidates to support the vice president,” Rasky said. “The sooner the better. We need to get this down to a two-person race in order to come to the convention at the very least with the moderate wing of the party united.”

Outside of Buttigieg, other candidates telegraphed Sunday they’re in it for the long haul.

“Wisconsin primary is halftime, and the convention in Milwaukee is the final play,” Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau wrote in a strategy memo, referencing that state’s April 7 contest.

Warren has 400 staff in Super Tuesday states, likely more than any candidate except Bloomberg, and her performance there will be a crucial test of her campaign’s long-game strategy. She came in third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire and Nevada, and fifth in South Carolina.



Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.