Biden Looks to South Carolina to Hobble Sanders’s Momentum

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden is betting on his long-standing ties to the black community to kick-start a comeback in South Carolina on Saturday as he tries to halt Bernie Sanders’s march to the Democratic nomination with Super Tuesday just three days away.

The former vice president enjoys a 12-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the state, thanks to strong support from black voters, who comprise the majority of the state’s Democratic electorate.

That affection comes from his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, and the good will he built up.

“This state lifted Bill Clinton to the presidency. This state lifted Barack Obama to the presidency. Now once again this state holds in its hands, literally, especially this state’s African-American community, the power to determine, literally the power to determine, who the next nominee of the United States Democratic Party is going to be,” Biden said Friday at Wofford College in Spartanburg.

Biden’s competitors have tried to cut into that by criticizing his vote for the 1994 crime bill, which has since been seen as overly harsh to African American suspects, and by taking positions in favor of reparations for descendants of slaves, as Tom Steyer has in South Carolina.

Dominant Force

Yet Biden remains dominant among black voters.

He’ll be counting on them Saturday. Anything other than a commanding win will weaken him in the 14 states, plus American Samoa, whose polls open just 60 hours after South Carolina’s close.

Of those states, Biden is only leading in North Carolina, and a new poll of voters in California suggests he may not cross the threshold to earn any delegates in Tuesday’s biggest prize.

Biden and the other Democrats attempting to dethrone front-runner Sanders before Tuesday may be simply running out of time. There are no more debates before then, making a Saturday evening victory speech perhaps the last chance for Biden to make his case to a national audience.

His win in South Carolina could be the next episode in a Democratic contest that so far has been littered with a series of potential game-changing moments that ended up failing to alter the underlying dynamic.

Slow Counting

Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses, but problems with counting the results dulled the impact of his historic triumph. Both Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren drew renewed attention after strong debate performances that failed to translate into enough votes in New Hampshire and Nevada to make them top competitors. Michael Bloomberg isn’t competing in South Carolina but staking his candidacy on a strong showing on Super Tuesday.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Overall, Sanders remains the front-runner, racking up delegates in Iowa, which he narrowly lost; New Hampshire, where he narrowly bested Buttigieg; and Nevada, where he beat Biden by a wide margin. He’s leading in western states like California and Colorado and northeastern states like Massachusetts and Maine on Super Tuesday, and he is ahead in national polls by double digits.

After early losses, Biden has wagered his campaign on a strong showing in South Carolina that he argues will foretell wins in southern states with similar numbers of black voters on Super Tuesday: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

“I’m optimistic about the whole process,” he said Saturday in Greenville.

At stake in South Carolina are 54 pledged delegates of the 1,991 needed to win the Democratic nomination. More importantly, perhaps, it offers any chance for momentum ahead of March 3.

He got some late-breaking good news, picking up the endorsement Wednesday of influential South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, a kingmaker in the state and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.

But the margin of victory will be crucial.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said Biden would need to win by 10 percentage points or more to project the show of force necessary to revive his campaign and position him as the top challenger to Sanders in what remains a splintered field of candidates.

“Everybody’s jockeying to be the alternative to Bernie Sanders,” he said.

But Theodore R. Johnson, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies the effects of race on electoral politics, says Biden may not get as much of a boost out of South Carolina as some past Democratic candidates who did well with black voters, like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

He argued that was often because the field had typically narrowed much more dramatically by the time South Carolina voted.

“There probably won’t be one candidate that the black vote coalesces behind before Tuesday,” he said.

Biden’s road out of South Carolina comes with two big potential speed bumps. Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager, has spent his own money heavily there. And Bloomberg, despite not being on the ballot in South Carolina, has spent more than $500 million of his own money to hire organizers and advertise heavily in Super Tuesday states.

Complicated Path

Both complicate Biden’s path, even as they’ve proven helpful foils for Sanders, who frequently criticizes the ultra-wealthy.

In South Carolina, Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar are polling well below the 15% threshold to win any of the 54 delegates, but plan to stay in the race in hopes of doing well in later states.

Addisu Demissie, a Democratic strategist who managed New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s failed presidential campaign, said that black voters will be more split during rest of the primary season, but he predicted they will come together behind the eventual nominee because of their opposition to President Donald Trump. But he said that Democrats still have work to do before November to keep them engaged.

“It only takes two or three out of a hundred black men to switch from Hillary to Trump or switch from Hillary to staying home to have a significant effect on the Electoral College,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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