South Carolina had long been viewed as former Vice President Joe Biden’s firewall in the 2020 race, but after disastrous finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats are beginning to fear that even it may escape him, effectively dooming his campaign.
Biden currently leads in virtually every public poll out of the first-in-the-South primary state and has maintained strong support among black voters, who make up more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate.
But after notching a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last week and fifth place in New Hampshire on Tuesday, some political observers are skeptical that he will have the momentum he needs to win in South Carolina, arguing that Feb. 29 may be too long to wait to turn around his political fortunes.
Biden, who over the course of three presidential runs has never won a primary or caucus, is facing increasingly stiff competition in the Palmetto State. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer is spending heavily there, hiring a number of local activists to staff and advise his campaign operation. Recent polls show Steyer surging into the top three in South Carolina.
The extent to which Biden is relying on South Carolina to boost his political prospects was made clear on Tuesday when he jetted off to Columbia before polls had even closed in New Hampshire for a rally with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of the former vice president’s campaign co-chairs.
Speaking to supporters there, Biden brushed off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, saying that it would be more diverse states like South Carolina that would choose the eventual Democratic nominee.
“I’ve said many times, you can’t be the nominee, you can’t win the general election as a Democrat unless you have the overwhelming support of black and brown voters,” Biden said, noting that “99.9 percent” of the country’s African Americans have yet to cast a ballot in the nominating contest.
But Caitlin Jewitt, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, said that many voters in Nevada, South Carolina and later primary states are “just starting to wake up” to the dynamics of the Democratic race — and that Biden’s performances in Iowa and New Hampshire could weigh on perceptions of his electability.
“If you are starting to pay attention to the race just now, you’re not hearing that Biden is the front-runner,” she said. “You’re hearing that [Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] is the front-runner, [former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete] Buttigieg is doing better than expected and [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar [D-Minn.] is doing better than expected.”
Jewitt and others said that Biden cannot simply rely on a narrow victory in South Carolina to boost his campaign into Super Tuesday four days later and will likely need to overperform to win back his status as a top-tier contender.
“Biden has to make certain that there’s a campaign deliverable that includes maxing out the win margin,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “It can’t be a slip by day and a win by night.”
Even before ballots had been cast in the New Hampshire primary, Biden and his aides were managing expectations of his performance there. At a Democratic presidential debate in Manchester last week, Biden conceded that he “took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here.”
And at a roundtable with reporters on Monday, Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield was already discussing the campaign’s plans for after the New Hampshire primary.
“We believe that regardless of what happens tomorrow night, we’re going to continue on with our plans to compete hard in Nevada, South Carolina, Super Tuesday and beyond,” Bedingfield said.
March 3’s Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states will hold their nominating contests, will pose its own set of challenges. Not only will the candidates have to scale up their operations to compete in large states such as California and Texas, but they’ll have to contend with the rising juggernaut of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg, a late entrant into the Democratic presidential race, is not competing in South Carolina or any of the other early-voting states. But he has spent heavily across the Super Tuesday ones, and has seen an uptick in support in national polls.
Biden is hoping that his support among black voters in South Carolina can hand him the kind of resounding victory he needs. Black voters make up about 60 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate, and the former Delaware senator’s allies see that as a potential windfall.
But that base of support may be showing signs of cracking. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed the former vice president’s support among black voters nationally plummeting to 27 percent, down from 49 percent last month. Bloomberg has risen to second place with 22 percent.
Seawright, who is unaligned in the Democratic primary, dismissed the significance of the Quinnipiac poll, noting that national surveys aren’t reflective of the political landscape in a specific state. He said that Biden has built up a deep rapport in South Carolina that would be difficult for his rivals to replicate.
“He’s dependent upon his relationships and his body of work over the years, and that’s how he built up trust with voters,” Seawright said.
“The one thing about black voters is that they don’t take their cues from other people and other places and communities that can’t relate to their set of experiences,” he continued. “Most people who look like us in communities like ours don’t get polled, but we show up to vote,” he added. “And I think that’s the one thing Biden has going for him in South Carolina.”
Biden isn’t the only candidate banking on a strong finish in South Carolina. Steyer, who has placed behind Biden in New Hampshire and Iowa, has spent millions on radio and television advertising in the state, and has assembled a legion of paid staffers, organizers and volunteers that outmatches those of his rivals.
The investments appear to be yielding returns. A Post and Courier-Change Research poll released earlier this month put Steyer in third place in South Carolina with 18 percent support, narrowly behind Sanders and 7 points behind Biden.
That same poll showed Biden’s support among black voters at 30 percent, down from 45 percent in a previous Post and Courier-Change Research survey released in August. Steyer, meanwhile, clocked in at 24 percent support among black voters.
Biden and his allies aren’t taking South Carolina for granted. In addition to traveling there in the midst of the New Hampshire primary this week, his campaign is ramping up its ad spending. At the same time, Unite the Country, the super PAC backing Biden, announced last week that it would soon expand into South Carolina with radio and digital ads.
Meanwhile, Biden’s supporters say there’s reason for the former vice president to be hopeful as the nominating contest moves into Nevada and South Carolina.
“Obviously we’ve been disappointed by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, but like any campaign you have to pick yourself up and move on,” said Rufus Gifford, the finance director for former President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and a Biden ally. “There’s legitimate reason for optimism as we move into states that are more reflective of the population at large.”
One dynamic that may work to Biden’s advantage is that his top rival in the moderate lane of the Democratic primary, Buttigieg, has struggled for months to gain traction among minority voters and is polling well behind him in South Carolina, potentially narrowing his competition.
Buttigieg, who took first place in Iowa and a close second in New Hampshire, is currently trailing four other candidates in South Carolina, according to recent polls. In Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 22, what few polls there are show an equally difficult challenge for Buttigieg.
But Buttigieg is still looking to make inroads in South Carolina ahead of Feb. 29. His campaign announced on Wednesday that it would add 55 staffers to its team in the state. And he also secured the endorsement of state Rep. JA Moore, a first-term lawmaker who previously backed Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) presidential bid.
Sanders, the progressive front-runner who has overtaken Biden in recent national polls after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, has so far trailed the former vice president in support among black voters.
The Post and Courier-Change Research survey released earlier this month showed Sanders with 16 percent support among black voters in South Carolina, almost identical to the 15 percent he received in the poll released in August.
The Quinnipiac poll released on Monday showed a similar trend. In that survey, Sanders took 19 percent support among black voters nationally compared to 17 percent in the poll released last month.
Biden’s allies insist that he is still on solid footing in South Carolina, but acknowledged the need for him to push back against the emerging narrative of trouble for his campaign. Gifford, the former finance director for Obama’s campaign, noted that Biden has been appearing on TV more often.
“I don’t know if you’d call it more aggressive, but I think you’ve seen a more overt media presence,” Gifford said. “I think it’s really important to remind folks, considering the negative coverage surrounding the campaign right now, why the country really loves Joe Biden.”
In one of those appearances on ABC’s “The View” on Thursday, Biden downplayed the results out of Iowa and New Hampshire, saying that he was shifting his attention south.
“We had the first two rounds. Made up about 2 percent of the public,” he said. “I’m heading south now, where I feel good.”