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Biden beat the odds in South Carolina. His party and pundits can learn from his win

Media and campaign focus on a few states only may be doing Democrats more harm than good

As long as Biden maintains his strength with African American voters, who make up somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote, he has the opportunity to go the distance but only if he steps up his game.”

That’s what I wrote in this column in July, just after the first Democratic primary debate — the one where Kamala Harris harshly attacked Joe Biden on his busing stance and the issue of race.  

That debate gave Harris her moment as the media’s “bright shiny object du jour” and a short-lived bounce in the polls. But Harris never really connected with older African American voters, a crucial element of the Democratic coalition, one that consistently turns out in higher numbers than their younger counterparts. Biden clearly understands both the community and the important role they play in picking presidential candidates.

He, no doubt, remembered Hillary Clinton’s 73-26 percent win over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 South Carolina primary. According to exit polls, Clinton won 86 percent of the African American vote in that race.

The last eight months haven’t been kind to the gaffe-prone Biden. But he has plodded along with his eye on one prize, South Carolina and its African American vote, while making the argument, which few in the media believed, that when the primary turnout reflected a more diverse makeup, he would win. And win he did — big.

After what had been a long, slow slide, Biden finally did up his game, as evidenced by his decision to spend the night of the New Hampshire primary in Columbia rather than Concord.  Biden clearly decided to put all his chips on winning the African American vote in the Palmetto State, and the gamble paid off.

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South Carolina bounce

Biden won a nearly 30-point victory over Sanders, and he did it with the overwhelming support of African American voters. The last three days since have been the very model of rampant speculation as the media shifted their focus to the candidate whose campaign many had pronounced all but over.

The polls had not yet closed in the Super Tuesday states as I filed this, but some context and a little more analysis of South Carolina may help discern what Tuesday night’s results may mean going forward. Most important, Biden got 61 percent of the African American vote last Saturday in South Carolina to Sanders’ 17 percent. That may be technically less than the size of Clinton’s 2016 victory, but with a turnout larger than 2008 and a multicandidate contest, his 61 percent is nothing less than remarkable. 

Of African Americans 45 and older, who represented 70 percent of the African American vote, Biden won them over Sanders, 69-12 percent. But even a cursory analysis of the exit polls showed that Biden’s win was broader than the media has reported. 

The former vice president won white voters, 33-23 percent. Even self-defined liberals went for Biden over Sanders by 17 points, 42-25 percent, with those who called themselves “very liberal” going for Biden 42-29 percent.  

It’s worth pointing out that a California self-described liberal might not be of the same mind as a South Carolina liberal, but with margins like these, Sanders’ weak showing, other than with younger voters, has to be concerning for the democratic socialist looking for a national majority coalition.

The exit polls also looked at Democratic voters’ top concerns.  They broke out this way:

  • Health care, 41 percent
  • Income inequality, 21 percent
  • Race relations, 17 percent
  • Climate, 14 percent

The people who put health care as their top priority picked Biden over Sanders by more than a 2-to-1 margin, 50-22 percent. The fact that the top two issues are the very ones Sanders talks most about should raise a flag for his campaign. He may have isolated the right issues but perhaps not the right solutions, at least for people in more centrist states like Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina, where the demographic makeup of the electorate may be closer to South Carolina than California.

Some coastal caution

Whichever way the delegate vote breaks in California, it’s worth asking if the Golden State is still a “golden ticket” to the Democratic nomination as the pundits are calling it. Or is the media and campaign focus on California to the exclusion of flyover country doing Democrats more harm than good in the long term?   

Clinton decided to embrace a California-centric campaign in 2016. She won the state by about 4 million votes and lost the popular vote in the rest of the country by about 1.4 million. She forgot that her husband “won” the popular vote outside California by about 4 million votes. Likewise, Barack Obama won the popular vote outside California by about 6 million votes in 2008 and nearly 2 million votes in 2012. In fact, every successful presidential candidate since 1992 has won the country outside the Golden State in the general election.

There’s no arguing that California is an important state in this year’s Democratic primary. But as the results roll in from Super Tuesday and the delegates are allocated, the media needs to do deeper dives into the state-by-state outcomes rather than simply rushing to pronounce winners and losers based on one or two big states.

Understanding how and why a primary candidate wins or loses gives us insight into not only the primary contests coming up but also what to expect in the general election a few months from now. 

South Carolina was a make-or-break moment for Biden, and he chose the site of his campaign’s life-and-death battle carefully. Fortunately for him, he ended up with a big victory and the wind at his back going into the next contests, or at least until the Super Tuesday votes are tallied.  

South Carolina was the first big inflection point of the primary season. It won’t be the last. Each of the top campaigns went into Super Tuesday with an advantage. For Mike Bloomberg, it was money. For Sanders, it was organization. For Biden, it was momentum.  

As you read this, it’s all over, save for the counting. As I write this, the verdict is still out.

But perhaps as the pundits have their say over the next few days, a little more thoughtful analysis and a little less speculation would help give the country a better understanding of this crucial process and confidence in its fairness. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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