© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at South Carolina’s First in the Nation Dinner at the State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 27, 2024. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo
By Trevor Hunnicutt, Jarrett Renshaw and Liliana Salgado
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday won the South Carolina Democratic primary — the first officially sanctioned race of the party’s nominating season — with early returns showing him dominating two other candidates, according to Edison Research projections.
While Biden, 81, faced little opposition, the vote was being closely watched amid concerns about his popularity, especially with Black voters.
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Edison Research made the prediction soon after polls closed at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT) on Saturday.
With about one-fifth of expected ballots counted, Biden won about 33,000 votes, or 97% of what has been tallied so far, way ahead of his two main challengers, U.S. Representative Dean Phillips and best-selling self-help author Marianne Williamson.
In a victory statement, the Biden campaign said: “In 2020, it was the voters of South Carolina who proved the pundits wrong, breathed new life into our campaign, and set us on the path to winning the presidency.
“Now in 2024, the people of South Carolina have spoken again and I have no doubt that you have set us on the path to winning the presidency again — and making Donald Trump a loser — again,” the campaign said in a statement.
Shortly before the polls in South Carolina closed, Biden arrived in Los Angeles, where he was expected to meet with Black entertainers.
Four years ago, it was South Carolina’s Black vote in the state’s primary that helped ignite his campaign and ultimately propel him to the White House.
Biden, an unpopular incumbent who faces little competition for his party’s nomination in subsequent state primaries leading up to the Nov. 5 U.S. election, was on track for an overwhelming victory in South Carolina.
Besides campaign fears that South Carolina’s heavily Black electorate might not be energized this time around, there also were doubts about his age and concerns about high consumer prices and security along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Democratic officials interviewed by Reuters expected somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 total primary votes, after a county-by-county tour of the Southern state aimed at exciting voters and multiple events featuring Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris.
Former President Donald Trump, 77, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in the general election.
South Carolina has not backed a Democrat for president in the general election since 1976. But because Black people make up more than half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, it presented an important test of Biden’s appeal with a voting base that typically supports Democrats nine-to-one in presidential races.
Some South Carolina voters were lukewarm about Biden’s reelection bid.
“Sometimes I wonder, is his presence enough because you don’t see him a lot, you don’t hear him a lot,” said Martin Orr, 52, a school administrator from McConnells, South Carolina, speaking about Biden, whom he planned to support in the election. “Is it quiet because of his age or his physical condition, or what’s going on? I think that’s what a lot of people are concerned about right now.”
ECHOES OF 2020
Although there are dozens of nominating contests ahead, Biden has already moved into general-election mode, attacking Trump in a series of speeches. “There’s a lot at stake here, folks,” Biden told campaign staff in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday.
Trump is heavily favored to win his party’s nomination after triumphing in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two Republican contests in the state-by-state battle. South Carolina plays host to the next major Republican presidential nominating battle, on Feb. 24.
Biden reordered the Democratic calendar to make South Carolina the first nominating contest, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, in a move that simultaneously increased the voice of Black voters and all but shut out any potential competition for the nomination.
In 2020, Biden garnered 49% of the 539,263 votes cast in South Carolina’s seven-person Democratic primary race. Democrats in the state expected him to capture a larger share of a smaller electorate this time against U.S. Representative Phillips and self-help author Williamson.
In New Hampshire, where Biden was not on the ballot last month, he captured 64% of the primary vote thanks to a write-in campaign.
In a recent speech to state Democrats, Phillips said he expected 95% of the state will go for Biden in the primary. But Phillips said he still has a role to play.
“If you want to have a first-in-the-nation primary, you need at least two candidates on the ballot, and I’m happy to be that other guy,” the congressman said.
(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 1)