Pete Buttigieg has ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Two campaign sources confirmed the news to the Guardian and said the former candidate was on his way back to South Bend, his home town in Indiana, where he would speak later on Sunday night.

The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend has never held statewide or national office but made a strong run in the Democratic primary, winning the Iowa caucuses narrowly from Bernie Sanders, now the national frontrunner, to whom he placed second in New Hampshire.

But Buttigieg could not make progress in Nevada and South Carolina, the first two states with influential minority voting blocs.

Joe Biden, the former vice-president, won the South Carolina primary on Saturday by a landslide margin. The next date on the primary calendar is Super Tuesday, 3 March, when 14 states, American Samoa and Democrats who live overseas will vote.

Biden will look to harvest support from Buttigieg as he seeks to establish himself as the moderate choice to deny Sanders, a progressive senator from Vermont.

Speaking to CNN on Sunday morning, Biden said he had not had any conversations with other candidates about whether they should drop out and back him but added: “I think everyone knows it’s going to be much more difficult to win back the Senate and keep control of the House if Bernie’s at the top of the ticket.”

The Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar is still in the race, though she is unlikely to quit before her state votes on Tuesday. The billionaire former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is also a centrist candidate for the nomination but he is self-funding his campaign and has not yet entered a primary.

Another billionaire moderate, Tom Steyer, dropped out on Saturday night.

On Sunday Rick Wilson, a former Republican consultant turned columnist and anti-Trump organiser who advocates a moderate choice of Democratic nominee, wrote on Twitter: “It’s hard to pick the right time to go in a campaign, but Pete Buttigieg did.”

At first on Sunday, which he began with breakfast with former president Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, it did not seem Buttigieg would take the final step.

“Every day we are in this campaign,” he told NBC News, “is a day that we have reached the conclusion that pushing forward is the best thing we can do for the country and for the party.”

But later in the day he was out.

It seems likely Buttigieg will remain a figure on the national political stage. A charismatic campaigner in the centre lane of the primary, having run for party chair in 2016, he was also the first openly gay candidate to be American president.

On Sunday Charles Kaiser, a Guardian contributor and the author of The Gay Metropolis: the Landmark History of Gay Life in America, said: “Even though he is leaving the race, his success in Iowa and New Hampshire was transformative.

“Before Pete Buttigieg no one knew if an openly gay or lesbian American could be a credible candidate for president. Now, no one from the LGBTQ community will ever grow up thinking their sexuality is an unsurmountable obstacle on the road to the White House.”

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