South Carolina gives Clinton her most important win yet

Updated

COLUMBIA, South Carolina – Hillary Clinton dealt Bernie Sanders a bruising defeat in South Carolina’s Democratic primary Saturday, with early returns showing her crushing the insurgent senator by a 3-to-1 margin. 

While the win was no surprise, it was still one of the best nights of Clinton’s second attempt at the presidency thus far because it proved the basic electoral theory of her campaign: that a strong advantage among minority voters would carry her to her party’s nomination – and potentially all the way to the White House. 

RELATED: Clinton thunders to a big win in South Carolina

The resounding victory makes it clear that Sanders, despite his best efforts, has been unable to address his fundamental weakness with black voters. African-Americans represented 61 percent of the turnout in the sate’s Democratic president primary – up from 57 percent in 2008 – and he lost the group 84 percent to 16 percent, according to NBC News exit polls.

If Sanders couldn’t close the gap among African-Americans in South Carolina, where he had the most time, money and resources devoted to introducing himself to the community, then it will be all the more difficult in coming states.

Sanders made a real effort to compete here, hiring more than 200 paid canvassers and devoting his own precious time to visit the state on numerous occasions. But for African-Americans, who have known and liked the Clinton family for more than 25 years, Sanders’ effort was too little, too late – or perhaps doomed from the start. 

MSNBC Live, 2/27/16, 8:17 PM ET

Clinton looks to replicate SC numbers on Super Tuesday

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd explains that Hillary Clinton’s potential to repeat her South Carolina margins on Super Tuesday could bring her closer to “presumptive nominee territory.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s top Democrat whose late-endorsement for Clinton gave her an extra boost of momentum, said his state’s voters had months to compare and contrast the candidates. “Tonight, the Democratic voters of South Carolina have rendered a significant verdict,” he said at Clinton’s victory rally in Columbia.

Clinton has now demonstrated massive victories among African-Americans in two very different states on opposite sides of the country – Nevada and South Carolina – suggesting that their loyalty for her, and the so-called firewall built on that loyalty, will hold.

The margins raise the real possibility she could take a major pledged delegate lead in next week’s Super Tuesday contests, when six southern states with large African-American populations will hold nominating contests at once. Even under the rosiest scenarios for Sanders, it will be hard for him to catch Clinton on Super Tuesday.

Sanders was not in South Carolina Saturday night, instead campaigning in Minnesota ahead of that state’s Tuesday primary.

But in a statement release shortly after polls closed, the Vermont senator vowed to continue his fight. “Let me be clear on one thing tonight. This campaign is just beginning. We won a decisive victory in New Hampshire. She won a decisive victory in South Carolina,” he said. “Our grassroots political revolution is growing state by state, and we won’t stop now.”

His supporters were braced for the loss, but the drubbing will be a test of his small-dollar fundraising apparatus, which is the lifeblood of his campaign.

RELATED: A good Super Tuesday may not be good enough for Sanders

Clinton supporters, meanwhile, are likely to begin urging Sanders to drop out of the race so she can begin to focus on the general election.

“I don’t see a path forward for Bernie Sanders. The sooner he gets out the better,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic National Committee member from South Carolina who supports Clinton.

At a high-energy victory party in massive gymnasium here, Clinton beamed as she took the stage to chants of “madam president.”

The former secretary of state suggested she was looking to the next phase of the campaign, the general election campaign after that, and even her potential presidency. 

“Tomorrow, this campaign goes national,” she declared.

With exit polls showing that Clinton won black voters by an even larger margin than Barack Obama beat her with in 2008, the win bolsters her plan to reassemble the diverse coalition that twice put President Obama in the White House for a third Democratic win.

“Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again – America has never stopped being great,” Clinton said, making it clear she was already setting at least one eye on prohibitive GOP front-runner, Donald Trump. “But we do need to make America whole again.”

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

South Carolina gives Clinton her most important win yet

Updated