Former Vice President Joe Biden notched his first win of the Democratic primary season in South Carolina, cruising to victory thanks to strong support from black voters and a boost from late-deciding voters. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders placed a distant second with political newcomer Tom Steyer third.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard trailed the pack, as none broke into double digits.
South Carolina is the Democratic first primary in which black voters make up a majority of the electorate. Biden dominated with black voters, with Steyer and Sanders far behind. Older black voters were among the most likely to back Biden, while Sanders came closer — but still trailed — among blacks under age 45.
Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg were unable to attract significant support from the most reliable bloc of Democratic voters.
Sanders was unable to build on his convincing win in the Nevada caucuses. Instead, in the wake of a contentious debate and Wednesday’s endorsement by Rep. Jim Clyburn, late deciders went heavily for Biden.
Another boost for Biden: almost half of South Carolina voters wanted a candidate who would restore the political system to the way it was before the Trump administration — about 15 points more than in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden dominated with these “restore” voters — and even held a narrow edge among those who want fundamental changes to the political system.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters’ top priority was for their nominee to be able to beat President Trump. While a nominee’s ability to win in November was important to South Carolinians, as well, voters there placed slightly more emphasis on a nominee who is a strong leader. Biden won the lion’s share of the vote among those who felt strong leadership and beating Trump was very important.
Three-quarters of South Carolina voters would be satisfied with Biden as the party’s eventual nominee, and two-thirds would be satisfied with Sanders, Warren or Steyer. Fewer would be satisfied with Buttigieg or Klobuchar.
Four-in-10 would be satisfied with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg who, despite not being on the ballot in South Carolina, was a frequent target at the debate last Tuesday in Charleston.
Despite some dissatisfaction if Bloomberg is the nominee, two-in-10 voters think it will be easier to beat Trump in November if the Democratic nominee is a billionaire. At the same time, about the same number think nominating a billionaire will make things harder for the Democrats.
Far more voters felt a variety of other candidate traits would make it more difficult to beat Trump — particularly nominating a gay candidate.
In addition to black voters and late deciders, Biden excelled with seniors, political moderates, and those who regularly attend religious services.
Sanders’ primary sources of strength (as in Iowa and New Hampshire) were young voters and very liberal voters. He struggled to find support among voters over 45 (11 percent), but did hold a narrow edge over Biden with whites without a college degree.
Steyer’s main sources of support overlapped considerably with Biden’s — likely preventing Biden from an even larger margin of victory. Steyer placed second (to Biden) among black women, voters over age 45, churchgoers, and those who said the most important issue was the economy or race relations. He dropped out of the race as the South Carolina results became clear.
Issues and Policies
Health care was the top issue for South Carolina voters, followed by the economy and jobs. Climate change — the second-most important issue to primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — was third.
Nearly nine-in-10 favored a public option approach to health care, in which all Americans could buy into Medicare if they chose. Support for limits on presidential campaign spending was nearly as robust.
Sanders’ signature policy proposals also proved popular, with wide majorities in favor of single-payer health care, eliminating student debt and legalizing marijuana.
Yet even those who favored Sanders’ policy proposals backed Biden by wide margins. Biden won those who supported eliminating student debt (46 percent vs. 22 percent for Sanders), single-payer supporters (42-25 percent) and legalization supporters (39-24 percent). Voters who opposed these policies broke heavily for Biden.
Roughly eight-in-10 primary voters backed reducing the criminal justice system’s focus on prosecuting low-level offenses, which advocates say would address racial and economic inequalities in the justice system. Another racial justice item — reparations for slavery — proved more divisive. A majority favored reparations, but views differed dramatically by race: eight-in-ten black voters favored the idea, while seven-in-10 white voters opposed it.
Overall, voters said Biden would do the best job handling issues related to race.
Voters also gave Biden the nod on handling health care, albeit by a somewhat narrower margin over Sanders. In a sign of the headwinds he faces heading into Super Tuesday, just 3 percent think Bloomberg would be best on health care — the most important issue to Democratic primary voters.
The Fox News Voter Analysis, conducted in partnership with The Associated Press, provides a comprehensive look at voting behavior, opinions and preferences as America votes. The South Carolina survey is based on surveys of the South Carolina electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago the week before the primary, 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 the 1,499 voters is estimated to be plus or minus 4.0 percentage points. Full methodology statement can be found here.