Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory Saturday in the S.C. Democratic primary — a win that should propel her on a path to the presidential nomination that eluded her in 2008.
Polls and delegate math are working in the former secretary of state’s favor.
Clinton leads U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent seeking the Democratic nomination, in all but two of 20 primaries and caucuses with polling through March 15, when half of all Democratic delegates will be awarded.
"South Carolina is the turning point," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said.
Several news organizations declared Clinton the winner of the South’s first primary right after S.C. polls closed at 7 p.m.
The South Carolina win is Clinton’s third in the first four primary contests. Her only loss came in New Hampshire, which borders Sanders’ home state of Vermont.
Clinton, the first woman to win a presidential primary in South Carolina, dominated the state’s pre-primary polls, helped by her massive support among African-American voters, who account for more than half of Palmetto State Democratic voters. She held nearly a 3-to-1 lead with black voters, despite Sanders wooing African-American pastors, college students and lawmakers.
Exit polls by CNN and MSNBC found African-American voter turnout surpassed 2008, which was 55 percent. South Carolina was the first state of the 2016 primary season with a significant African-American population.
“She has been around quite a while fighting for blacks, trying to get better jobs, better education,” said David Webb, a 64-year-old African-American retiree from Columbia who voted for Clinton.
Many of the early March primaries are held in states with large blocs of African-American voters. Sanders is polling ahead of Clinton only in Vermont, his home state, and Massachusetts, which borders Vermont.
Sanders will need to show he can win states with greater diversity than New Hampshire and Iowa, where he ran a close second Clinton, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat who is an undecided superdelegate to the party’s convention, which will nominate a candidate for president.
If Sanders does not show progress in his campaign against Clinton after the March 15 primaries, he might want to rethink staying in the race, said Cobb-Hunter, who chairs the Democratic National Committee's Southern Regional Caucus.
"Just because he's got money doesn't mean he has to stay in it," Cobb-Hunter said.
Clinton and her team built on relationships in South Carolina grounded from her 2008 presidential campaign, which she lost to then-U.S. Barack Obama.
Clinton gathered support from more than 30 S.C. lawmakers, led by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, an African-American who is the state’s most influential Democratic politician.
"South Carolina matters because it best represents the Democratic coalition of all the early primaries," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina. "And if you can't do well in that state, no matter the fervor you have, how can you claim the Democratic nomination without the Democratic coalition?"
Sanders was outmatched in South Carolina, where being a self-proclaimed democratic socialist failed to win over voters in the centrist state. His pledge to fix a rigged economic system and to provide free college were met more with skepticism than enthusiasm.
“I was a Bernie (supporter) all the way up to about a week ago and ended up going with Hillary just for her understanding of policy, her foreign policy stance, her experience in government and just the possibility she could actually be able to get her agenda through,” said Kimberly Branham, a 52-year-old administrative assistant from Columbia.
The Sanders camp knew it was going to lose South Carolina.
“I wouldn't focus on the margin,” a campaign pollster said last week, “because it's not going to be that close.”
With an insurmountable deficit, Sanders spent much less time than Clinton in South Carolina last week. He campaigned Wednesday, Thursday and part of Friday in Midwestern states that hold primaries next month, including some that cast votes on Tuesday.
Sanders came back to the Palmetto State late Friday, but he flew out again Saturday to campaign in Texas and Minnesota, where he held a rally as polls closed in South Carolina.
Sanders failed to carry over momentum from his 22-percentage-point win in New Hampshire on Feb. 9. In the two races since, he lost the Nevada caucus a week ago and now the S.C. primary.
Attracting white or younger voters, his biggest blocs of support, is not enough to push Sanders past Clinton. "It's a not a winning strategy," Catawba’s Bitzer said.
Clinton, on the other hand, made more than 10 public stops across the state during the last week.
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, also campaigned last week in South Carolina — a sign the campaign was not resting on its large lead.
Clinton supporters gathered at the University of South Carolina volleyball center on Saturday night said they ready to witness history.
“I was fortunate enough to see an African-American president,” said Lillie Parks, 72, of Lake City.“Now I want to see a woman.”
S.C. voters did not come out Saturday in numbers that matched the 2008 Democratic primary, which featured Obama, who would become the country’s first African-American president, and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a S.C. native. More than 530,000 votes were cast that year.
Even if Clinton nabs a majority of delegates next month, as polling suggests, Sabato said he expects Sanders to continue his campaign, fueled by small-dollar donations. Sanders will continue to gather delegates to have more of a voice in the party, including some influence on the Democratic convention platform in Philadelphia.
"And he'll become a permanent fixture on the Sunday talk shows," Sabato said.
But some Democratic leaders think a prolonged primary will not help the party keep the White House.
"I look at what's going on on Facebook, and I'm concerned about unifying the two camps after the primaries are over," Cobb-Hunter said. "Let's stay focused on November because we won't win if we're busy killing each other in the primaries."
Staff writer Glen Flanagan and McClatchy DC Bureau writer William Douglas contributed.