Columbia, South Carolina—When Hillary Clinton trounced Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 South Carolina primary 3 to 1, it was possible to say the race for the Democratic presidential nomination was effectively over. (In fact, I said it here.) Clinton’s dominance with black voters—she beat Sanders 86-14—heralded the way she’d sweep through Southern primaries and also win states with large populations of color. And so she did.
Joe Biden’s impressive victory here Saturday night—he beat Sanders 48-20—means no such thing. What it does, though, is keep Biden alive, providing him momentum headed into Super Tuesday, three days away, when 14 states will vote, including Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas in the South.
“For all those who’ve been knocked down or counted out, this is your campaign,” an ebullient Biden told the crowd at the University of South Carolina volleyball gym Saturday night, the same place where Clinton declared victory four years ago, although it seemed about half as full. “With the heart of the Democratic Party, we just won big, because of you.” Indeed, Biden beat Sanders among black voters 61-17, meaning the Vermont senator inched his black vote share up by only 3 points.
In the first four contests of 2020, we’ve had three different winners: Sanders in New Hampshire and Nevada, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa, and now Biden in South Carolina. This race just got a lot messier.
The biggest loser in South Carolina was California billionaire Tom Steyer, who spent more than $20 million only to finish third and drop out Saturday night, having spent more than $400 per vote. To his credit, Steyer focused on the black vote here, though ineffectively. I saw his awkward, expensive campaign in microcosm Friday night at historically black Allen University in Columbia. Outside the half-empty gym, attendees enjoyed a Southern smorgasbord of beef brisket, pulled pork panini, and a lavish mashed potato bar. Inside, a mainly black crowd of all ages line-danced to Beyonce’s version of “Before I Let Go,” waiting for the rapper Juvenile and gospel singer Yolanda Adams to entertain them.
But there was nothing more entertaining than when Steyer himself joined Juvenile on stage to dance to his 1999 hit “Back That Azz Up.” I couldn’t not think of Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, the desperate white politician who embraced black culture as a weird metaphor for having nothing left to lose in the 1998 movie. Steyer looked exhilarated, telling the crowd, “I’m never leaving! We’re going to win this fight!” If it was pandering—and it absolutely was—well, he was feeling it at the time. But within 24 hours, he was out of the race.
Steyer bet everything on South Carolina, making central to his appeal calls for reparations for slavery and investment in historically black colleges like Allen. His wife, Kat Taylor, effectively moved to Columbia after her husband belatedly joined the race, and through her own Oakland bank became the largest depositor in Optus Bank, a local black-owned institution known for its lending to black businesses.
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He also hired respected black legislators, including Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving state representative in Columbia. Even before Steyer dropped out Saturday night, a disappointed Cobb-Hunter told me, “Tom and Kat have been poorly served by their national campaign staff. He has a great message of environmental justice that deserved to be heard,” but it never got amplified by the campaign. “I don’t know where it goes from here.” Within three hours, it was over.
Meanwhile, Sanders came in second to Biden, but finished with a smaller vote share than he won in 2016 (admittedly in a race with seven people). The same day as Steyer’s Allen University event, I saw several hundred Sanders supporters rally in a downtown Columbia park. All the speakers before Sanders, from former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport to rapper Killer Mike, were African American, but the crowd was three-quarters white. Killer Mike took a dig at Representative Jim Clyburn (who endorsed Biden) with a plea to “black South Carolinians” not to be swayed by “what your leaders did 50 years ago.” Sanders himself warned the crowd that “the establishment is getting nervous about our campaign.”
But while Sanders put a lot of money into the state and built a strong organization that was reportedly 80 percent people of color, he didn’t wind up with much to show for it, winning 17 percent of the black vote as compared to 14 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, just as he did in 2016 (which my colleague and now Nation editor D.D. Guttenplan caught at the time), Sanders thanked only male South Carolina supporters at his final rally, naming state Representatives Terry Alexander and Justin Bamberg again, even though Jessica Bright spoke at the rally and ran his state campaign. (He did give a shout-out to omnipresent national campaign cochair Nina Turner.) Also like 2016, Sanders left the state a day early, a sign he didn’t expect to do well enough to stay for a victory speech (he skedaddled to Massachusetts, where he’s hoping to deny Senator Elizabeth Warren a victory in her home state on Tuesday).
Warren stayed in South Carolina through Saturday morning, hosting a get-out-the-vote event in Columbia before heading to Texas, another Super Tuesday state. Warren had to be disappointed with her fifth-place, seven-point share, especially since she continued to rack up influential black endorsements in the closing days of the race. (How Buttigieg finished ahead of her, albeit by only one point, I will never, ever understand.) As The New York Times’s Astead W. Herndon wrote Friday, she had lots of “grasstops” support here but not enough from the “grassroots.” Her packed John Legend event in Charleston Wednesday, like Sanders’s smaller Columbia rally Friday, was disproportionately white, in a state where African Americans make up more than 60 percent of the Democratic electorate.
A South Carolina political veteran who admires Warren but remained neutral in the race said the senator hadn’t been able to translate her support from nationally known black actors and activists—from Ashley Nicole Black and Yvette Nicole Brown to the leaders of Black Womxn For and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza—into community support. “I love Alicia Garza, but Warren needed more surrogates on the ground here that our grandmas know,” she said.
I might be a Warren-sympathizer magnet, but I met no fewer than five people Saturday afternoon and evening—three women and two men, four of five African American—who said they went into the voting booth considering Warren but voted Biden instead. For Edward Nelson, a New Yorker who moved to Columbia years ago, “ultimately it was the Clyburn endorsement, when he said, ‘We know Joe and Joe knows us.’ That sealed the deal.” My black female Uber driver (sorry to turn into Tom Friedman) told me she preferred Warren, but in the end “my spirit told me to vote for Biden,” because sexism would doom Warren, she believed, just like it did Clinton.
Steyer’s getting out is good news for Biden. One billionaire down. But Michael Bloomberg is still in, and will rear his head on Super Tuesday. Whoever built this primary schedule was crazy; South Carolina has long been a crucial Democratic primary state, launching Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the presidency. But with three days before Super Tuesday, it’s not clear how much of a bounce his win here will give Biden, or how much it will hurt the losing candidates.
What matters for Biden is he got a big win. What happens next got more interesting than we thought it might be only a week ago.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece referred to the New York Times reporter as Astead Wesley. In fact, that is his Twitter handle; he is Astead W. Herndon.