At his February 11 launch party for his South Carolina campaign push, Joe Biden came out to the crowd as Jackie Wilson’s soul classic “Higher and Higher” played amidst his supporters, many of whom were cheering as they waved “South Carolina is Biden country” signs. The atmosphere was certainly celebratory, but it belied a calculated strategy on the part of the former vice president, who began to focus on this state as early as the Iowa caucuses.
“You have no idea how great it is to be back in South Carolina,” he told the crowd gathered near downtown Columbia. “I hope you love me as much as I love you guys. I’ve been coming here a long time. When I die, I want to be reborn in Charleston. I like the Lowcountry, you know what I mean.”
This could very well be the beginning of the boost Biden so greatly needs. For his campaign, South Carolina — which he refers to as the “firewall” — represents the hurdle he must leap in order to continue in the race for the White House. After lackluster showings in Iowa, where he came in fourth, collecting only 15.8 percent of the vote and six delegates; and in New Hampshire where he received 8 percent of the vote and no delegates, he set his sights on the Palmetto state, where about two-thirds of the electorate are African American.
Thus, the Black vote becomes so crucial to the man who served under the first Black president that he (or any of the other candidates) cannot take it for granted, something the Democratic party has been accused of for years.
First Biden must get through Nevada this weekend, where he reportedly hopes to place at least second in its caucuses. And then, the big bet is on South Carolina. If he doesn’t receive the support he needs there, he would be forced to move on to Super Tuesday on March 3, where he would have to climb steep hills in the 14-state contest in order to regain the momentum he had months ago.
In a Feb. 14 Washington Post/ABC News nationwide poll, Biden has slipped behind rival candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and is fighting for second place with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He still leads in South Carolina, but a Winthrop University poll shows him with 24 percent of voters ahead of Sanders at 19 percent. Among African Americans, Biden leads at 31 percent. Even so, his campaign is nervous.
“Flames seem to be licking through the cracks in Biden’s firewall. His support has dropped by double digits since the late September Winthrop Poll,” said Dr. Scott Huffmon, Winthrop’s poll director on its website.
“Without a strong showing in South Carolina, Biden’s campaign will be limping into Super Tuesday. Even a win, if not significant and decisive, will be interpreted as a loss by his opponents.”
Sanders has doubled his efforts to win in South Carolina and has placed significant African American backing behind him in the state. Richland, S.C., city councilwoman Dahli Myers told the Associated Press last month that she was switching her support from Biden to Sanders, believing that he’s better suited to battle President Donald Trump in November.
“I looked at that, and I thought, ‘He’s right,’” said Myers. “He’s unafraid and he’s unapologetic. … I like the fact that he is willing to fight for a better America — for the least, the fallen, the left behind.”
This split in support and the spending on getting Biden’s message out may make all the difference when it comes to either keeping Black voters or swaying others his way. According to South Carolina newspaper The State, Biden has spent almost $264,000 on television and social media ads in the state and yet, it remains significantly behind much of the Democratic pack. Billionaire Tom Steyer has spent more than a whopping $13 million just in South Carolina alone and Bloomberg has dropped $1.7 million. In comparison, Sen. Amy Klobochar has only spent $8,006 on television and social media ads in the state.
Nonetheless, South Carolina’s Black vote could be what catapults Biden and turns his campaign directly toward winning the Democratic nomination. It did just that for Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she beat Sanders 86 percent to 14 percent among African Americans. Then like now, the state’s Black Democratic electorate was almost two-thirds.
Biden also knows that this all too important Black vote can not and should not be taken for granted and recently said as much on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“I’m the only one who has the record and has the background and has the support. They know me,” he said of Black voters in South Carolina. “They know who I am.”
With that history in mind, political watchers say Biden’s relationships in South Carolina could be what holds his movement together, sending him to Super Tuesday with a win.
“The difference between the vice-president and most of the other candidates is that he has strong, deep and wide relationships that transcend this political season,” said Antuan Seawright, a Democratic political strategist and CBS News political contributor told BET.com
“He’s not starting from the same place, not that he’s taking things for granted as I see it, but he’s not starting from the same place.”
“The campaign has done a good job running a high tech operation so that’s why South Carolina should be a safe place to launch the second leg of his campaign,” Seawright continued. “African American voters will demonstrate their loyalty to him.”
Madison J. Gray is BET.com’s senior editor reporting from the ground in South Carolina.
PHOTO BY: Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images