CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Vice President Joe Biden, leaving Las Vegas behind, is placing all his chips on South Carolina as his best — and perhaps last — chance to reverse a string of losses in early-voting states and mount a serious challenge to Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.
As the Democratic contest moves here, the electorate for the first time this primary season will feature an African American majority, testing support for the candidates among a key segment of the Democratic base. Saturday’s primary also marks the final single-state contest before the race dramatically widens to 14 states, including California, which vote on March 3, Super Tuesday.
If Biden doesn’t clean up here, where he has longstanding personal and political ties, the result could wipe out the remaining hope for the candidate once considered the front-runner in the Democrats’ 2020 presidential campaign.
“If he were not to win South Carolina, he would be in a precarious position,” Rep. James E. Clyburn, a powerful South Carolina Democrat who is the highest-ranking African American member of Congress, said in an interview. Clyburn has not yet endorsed any 2020 candidate but said Sunday that he would do so later this week.
Biden came in a distant second in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, walloped by Sanders. The Vermont senator won more than twice as much of the vote, solidifying his position as the front-runner in the contest.
For Biden, however, second was an improvement over his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and fifth-place showing in the New Hampshire primary, and he cast it as the beginning of a comeback.
“We are alive, and we are coming back, and we are going to win,” he told supporters in Las Vegas on Saturday. He repeated that message in a television interview Sunday, saying on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “I’m going to go all the way through this thing.”
Some political figures here believe Biden continues to have a strong shot in a state where he was once the undisputed leader.
“He’s moving up,” said Clay Middleton, a South Carolina political strategist who advised New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, and has not yet committed to another candidate. “However, he needs to win the debate” when the candidates confront each other here Tuesday. “He has to own that stage.”
None of the other top contenders has quite as much at stake here as does Biden — a fact reflected in their schedules, which were heavy with appearances in Super Tuesday states.
Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who finished just slightly behind Biden in Nevada, was scheduled to hold a town hall in northern Virginia on Sunday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts headed to Colorado and plans a rally in San Antonio later this week.
Sanders was already in Texas when he celebrated his Nevada triumph Saturday night; he is staying there Sunday for rallies in Houston and Austin, Texas. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota planned to spend Sunday in North Dakota, which holds caucuses March 10, and Super Tuesday states Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Biden’s campaign, by contrast, has moved staff from Super Tuesday states to South Carolina. Even so, they are outnumbered by the staff of some of his principal rivals.
In South Carolina, Biden is battling not just Sanders but also billionaire Tom Steyer, who has eclipsed everyone on air here, with more than $13 million in broadcast and digital ads, and gone on a campaign spending spree targeting black voters, who make up about 60% of the state’s Democratic primary electorate.
According to a study by the Institute for Southern Studies, Democratic presidential candidates have so far spent more than $17.6 million on digital and television ads in South Carolina with the vast majority of it — $13.3 million — by Steyer, who also spent heavily in Nevada, but ended up not winning any delegates to the nominating convention.
South Carolina is friendly territory for Biden not only because it is the first of the early-voting states with a large population of black voters, a pillar of Biden’s political strength, but also because of long-standing ties he has with the state’s political leadership.
But Biden’s once-commanding lead in South Carolina polls has seriously eroded — even among black voters.
For most of 2019, polling averages showed Biden with a lead here of some 20 points, but that fat cushion has all but vanished.
A new CBS/YouGov poll of the state, released Sunday, showed Biden leading with 28%, but Sanders close behind, with 23%. Steyer had 18%, followed by Warren with 12%, Buttigieg with 10% and Klobuchar with 4%. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, is not on the ballot here.
Biden’s strength in South Carolina among black voters is widely attributed to his role as vice president to Barack Obama, who remains a hero to many in the state. Speaking at a small campaign event at a brewery in Charleston on Saturday, Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, one of Biden’s campaign surrogates, played bluntly to that connection when he led the group in a chant, “Joe-Bama! Joe-Bama!”
But Biden also has other long-standing personal and political ties to the state. He was close to the late South Carolina Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, an iconic political figure who introduced him to political leaders throughout the state. Biden delivered the eulogy at Hollings’ 2019 funeral.
In a tribute to Biden’s roots in a more bipartisan era that seems foreign to many young Democrats today, he also in 2003 gave a eulogy for Sen. Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Republican senator from South Carolina. And for decades, Biden and his family have vacationed in South Carolina.
“It’s nothing to walk into a restaurant in South Carolina and see Joe Biden, or to go to church and see Joe Biden,” said Clyburn. “He’s been coming here for 20 years and people know him.”
In an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” however, Clyburn offered some criticism of Biden, saying he had not been forceful enough so far in laying out for voters why he should be their choice.
“I’ve heard from a lot of the people that they thought that Joe Biden could have done more to engage on the — during the debates and thought he could have done more to say why he would be deserving,” Clyburn said. He added that he intends to endorse a candidate Wednesday, after the next debate.
Biden has cultivated the loyalty of local politicians like David Mack, a state legislator who said that every year during the Obama administration, he’d been invited to the vice president’s mansion during Black History Month.
Mack is still bullish on Biden’s prospects now that the race is coming to a racially diverse state.
“Right now the race is really starting because of the diversity of South Carolina,” Mack said at the brewery event Saturday.
But some of Biden’s old-fashioned political skills of bipartisanship and relationship building may be less powerful amid today’s fierce politics of a more-liberal Democratic Party preoccupied with beating President Trump and now on course to nominating a fiery candidate like Sanders.
“It’s breaking my heart,” said Joanne Letendre, a 71-year-old Biden supporter at the Charleston event, which was headlined by Biden’s sister, Valerie Owens. “It’s like he doesn’t want to yell and scream. But in a world that yells and screams, he needs to defend himself.”
Marlon Kimpson, a South Carolina state senator backing Biden, said voters in South Carolina — a state that kept Thurmond and Hollings in office for a combined 87 years — have a tendency to favor politicians they know well.
“When voters go to vote for Biden, they don’t have to struggle to pronounce his name, they don’t have to struggle to put a name to the face,” said Kimpson. “They know Joe Biden.”
Kimpson said he is telling moderate voters to consider voting for Biden rather than other lower-polling moderates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar.
“Moderate South Carolina voters need to ask themselves whether a vote for a candidate that is polling in single digits is a vote for Bernie Sanders,” Kimpson said.
Old-fashioned virtues and Biden’s decades of experience are still attracting voters like Cornell Johnson of Moncks Corner, S.C., who is unfazed by Biden’s early-state losses.
“He has a moral compass,” said Johnson as he waited at the brewery for Biden’s sister to speak. “It’s not always the swift that wins. It’s endurance. Not quitting.”
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