Personal popularity, a large black electorate, fewer liberals and a fondness for Obama-era policies threw a lifeline to former Vice President Joe Biden in South Carolina -- while exit poll results found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders lagging in favorability and perceived sensitivity to racial issues alike.
In handing Biden his first victory, Democratic primary voters also tossed a stink bomb to billionaire Mike Bloomberg.
While he wasn’t on the ballot, a broad 66% expressed an unfavorable opinion of him overall, far more than any of the other six candidates tested. Just 26% saw Bloomberg favorably.
A remarkable 78%, by contrast, expressed a favorable opinion of Biden, including 85% among blacks. Favorability ratings were 55% for businessman Tom Steyer, who spent heavily in the state; 51% for Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; 48% former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg; and 40% for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Fifty-four percent said the next president should return to former President Barack Obama’s policies as opposed to a more liberal, 26%, or more conservative, 16%, approach. That was a boon for Biden; 65% of those who preferred Obama-era policies backed the former vice president. Sanders won those favoring more liberal policies, but by less of a margin.
That result marked a contrast with the previous primary in New Hampshire -- where Biden struggled -- when just 40% favored a return to Obama administration policies. But the biggest contrast with previous contests was in the participation of blacks: they accounted for 57% of South Carolina voters in preliminary exit poll results. While a bit below their 2016 turnout, they were still vastly higher than their share of voters in Nevada, 11%, or Iowa and New Hampshire, 3% apiece.
Biden won South Carolina blacks by a smashing 4-1 over Sanders, 64-15% (and 13% for Steyer), far above Biden’s 10-point margin among blacks in Nevada. His support among blacks also trumped Sanders’ customary strength among younger and liberal voters: Blacks under 45 and liberal blacks -- including those who said they’re very liberal -- all backed the former vice president over the Vermont independent. The result was a Biden win even among strong liberals overall.
Notably, too, 47% of all voters in the state, and 58% of blacks, picked Biden as the candidate who "best understands the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities."
Two-in-10 overall picked Sanders on this measure, while 1-in-10 picked Steyer.
Sanders may have also suffered from a dearth of Hispanics in the state. They account for only 3% of South Carolina voters in exit poll results, compared with 17% in Nevada, where he won them resoundingly, 50-17% over Biden.
Meanwhile Biden, while overwhelmingly winning blacks, also ran ahead of Sanders among whites, 34-25%, in the Palmetto State. That was far better for Biden than his previous results among whites -- 16% in Iowa, 8% in New Hampshire and 15% in Nevada.
There were also fewer liberals in the primary than in the earlier contests; they made up 49% of South Carolina voters -- vs. an average of 64% in the three previous states.
Conservative Democratic voters, by contrast, made up 9% in South Carolina, up from 3% in previous states this year.
To Sanders’ disadvantage, race mattered more than age: He won 46% of whites age 17-44, compared with 14% for Biden. But among blacks younger than 45, Biden’s support grew to 44%, and Sanders’ dropped back to 27%. Biden’s support also grew with age, topping out at 66% among all seniors, a vast tally in a seven-person contest.
A large share of voters were mainline Democrats -- 70% -- rather than independents, and this, too, added to Biden's score, with a vast margin for Biden among Democrats, 57-18%. Biden also prevailed among independents, albeit by far less of a margin, 37-24%.
Another, issue-focused result marked Biden’s dominating performance. Half of South Carolina voters said they supported a government-run single-payer health care system -- a Sanders and Warren signature issue. Sanders won single-payer voters by a wide margin previously, but here Biden, even while not a proponent of a single-payer system, won those voters by 46-28% over Sanders.
Among other exit poll results, 41% called health care the top issue in deciding their vote -- similar to the previous three contests.
That was trailed by income inequality, 21%; race relations, a new item replacing foreign policy in the previous surveys, 16%; and climate change, 14%.
Fifty-three percent prioritized beating President Donald Trump over choosing the candidate who agrees with them on major issues -- 10 points lower than an average of 63% in the previous contests.
On the other hand, 53% also said the U.S. economic system needs "a complete overhaul," vs. 36% who think it needs "minor changes." Biden won similar support in both groups.
While Party loyalty was substantial, if not complete, 8-in-10 said they will still vote for the Democratic nominee "regardless of who it is," while 17% said they wouldn't. That includes more than 8-in-10 Biden and Steyer supporters, slipping to 72% of those who voted for Sanders.
Back to Bloomberg, who makes his first ballot appearances on Super Tuesday: Just 20% of very liberal voters saw him favorably, as did 27% of somewhat liberals and 32% of moderate voters. His favorability ratings were a bit better among whites than blacks, 31% vs. 22%, albeit weak in both groups, and were similar among men and women.
Lastly, impacts of endorsements can be difficult to pin down, but backing for Biden from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the senior House Democrat in the state, was called "the most important factor" by 28% of voters and "one of several important factors" by an additional 22%.
That said, 64% also said they decided on their vote more than a few days ago -- that is, before the Clyburn endorsement.