South Carolina exit polls: Black and moderate voters fuel Biden to victory

The former vice president won over 60 percent of the black vote and received solid backing from moderate and religious voters Saturday.

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By Jane C. Timm and Patrick J. Egan

Black and moderate Democrats propelled Joe Biden to a big win in South Carolina's presidential primary Saturday, according to results of an NBC News Exit Poll.

The former vice president was the overwhelming favorite of the state’s black Democrats, receiving 61 percent of their votes. That was far ahead of his nearest rival Bernie Sanders, who got just 16 percent of the black vote. NBC News projected Biden the winner as polls closed at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Biden garnered the support of 54 percent of voters who called themselves either moderate or conservative, and 56 percent of those who said they attend religious services at least weekly. Biden was also the top choice of South Carolina Democrats who care most about nominating a candidate who “can unite the country,” receiving 59 percent of their votes.

South Carolina's electorate was markedly more diverse and moderate than previous early voting states this year.

More than half of those voting in Saturday's primary — 56 percent — identified as African American, a dramatically higher share than in the Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada Democratic presidential contests. Biden’s support among African American voters was strongest among those aged 65 and over: he crushed Sanders with this group, 78 percent to 9 percent. But at each step down the generational ladder, Biden’s performance with blacks worsened and Sanders improved. Among black Democrats under age 30, Sanders got the support of 38 percent compared to 36 percent for Biden.

Fifty percent of voters said they consider themselves to be liberal, compared to all the previous contests where liberals made up at least six in 10 voters. And just four in 10 South Carolina voters said they were college graduates; by contrast, college graduates were in the majority of the electorates in the first three contests.

Democrats voting Saturday were somewhat split over whether they would like to see a return to Obama-era policies or a shift to more liberal policies.

Two out of three black voters said they want a return to Obama’s policies, while a plurality of white Democrats, 41 percent, said they are looking for a president who will pursue more liberal policies.

South Carolina Democrats aren’t quite as focused on victory in November as their counterparts in the other 2020 contests held so far: Slightly more than half of those voting in Saturday's primary said they prioritize beating Trump over a candidate who agrees with them on issues, the NBC News Exit Poll of primary voters show. In Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, more than six in 10 voters said they would rather see a nominee who can beat Trump.

White Democrats described their feelings about the Trump administration as "angry," while black voters expressed a much more subdued reaction.

Sixty-one percent of white Democrats said they are angry, while another quarter said they are "dissatisfied," with Trump. Among black voters Saturday, just 37 percent described themselves as angry, and 49 percent said they’re dissatisfied.

The state's voters also favor big change: The exit poll found widespread dissatisfaction with the nation's economic system.

A majority of the state’s Democratic voters — 53 percent — say the U.S. economic system “needs a complete overhaul,” while another 36 percent say it warrants “minor changes.” Less than one in ten voters think the economy works well enough “as is.”

Medicare for All, an idea whose appeal was once limited to the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party, was favored by 49 percent of voters in South Carolina, which features the most moderate Democratic electorate so far in 2020. Support for the plan among South Carolina voters isn’t quite as high as among Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, where voters said they were more liberal and an average of six-in-ten voters expressed support for the healthcare policy.

As for the personalities in the race, Biden was particularly well liked: 77 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters had a favorable view of him.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, on the other hand, wasn't on the ballot but incited strong opinions about him: just 26 percent of voters had a favorable view of him.

Voters were split on Sanders: 51 percent had a favorable view of the Vermont senator.

But his voters, it seemed, are also torn on the rest of the field: one in four Sanders supporters said they couldn't pledge to support the general election nominee in November.