South Carolina primary: Is this Joe Biden’s big comeback?

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

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Joe Biden was once the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A few weeks ago, after a string of defeats, his campaign teetered on the edge of an electoral abyss. Now the former vice-president is scrambling his way back into contention.

While the campaign is reluctant to admit it, the South Carolina primary on Saturday is make or break for Biden.

"If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory," Biden said, "there will be no stopping us."

Win, and his campaign lives on. Lose, and it's just about time to lower the curtain on his half-century career in American politics.

A last-minute lifeline

Through much of 2019, Biden and his campaign referred to South Carolina as his "firewall" - the state where his support was so strong even early setbacks could not dent his standing.

Now, the Biden team is referring to the first southern state to vote as a "launching pad", the place that will, at last, allow his presidential bid to take flight.

After a series of mid-February surveys showed Biden tied or only slightly ahead of Senator Bernie Sanders in the state, several recent surveys have the former vice-president up by double digits.

Polls weren't the only good news Biden received this week, either - he also received the backing of James Clyburn, the most important Democrat in the state of South Carolina.

It's difficult to overstate how important Clyburn's support could be for the former vice-president, who was visibly moved by Clyburn's endorsement.

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It was the first thing Biden mentioned at a campaign appearance in Georgetown, an old industrial port town about 60 miles north of Charleston, later that day.

After Biden's event, Mack Smith - an African American who is retired - said he was torn between Biden and Tom Steyer, the California hedge-fund billionaire who has invested considerably time and money in courting the black vote in the state, but that Clyburn's testimonial "carries as a lot of weight".

"The vice-president, he's been there before," Smith said. "You know what it's all about, and I think he can do the job."

Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the Democratic House leadership team and the former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, has the most powerful on-the-ground political organisation in South Carolina.

media captionThe biggest myth about the 'black vote'

On Friday, Pete Buttigieg cancelled a campaign event with some black small-town mayors, reportedly because the participants backed out rather than be seen working against Clyburn's chosen candidate.

With Clyburn's help, Biden now appears poised to win the South Carolina primary, perhaps by a comfortable margin. From there, his campaign hopes a few days of "Biden comeback" stories will give him a boost going into the 14 states that hold primaries on the 3 March - so-called "Super Tuesday".

Rock bottom

Biden was considered the national front-runner for most of 2019, despite concerns about campaign stumbles and fumbles. Political prognosticators and analysts began wondering if Biden had a Donald Trump-like gift of political resilience.

Then the bottom dropped out - and quickly.

There was a shocking fourth in Iowa then a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. His national poll numbers plummeted. In hindsight, the signs of trouble may have been there for some time.

His campaign team was not in touch with what Iowa is or what Iowa takes, says former congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chair Dave Nagle.

Nagle said Biden could have - should have - finished second in Iowa, given his name recognition, goodwill with voters and skill as retail politician. But a poor campaign organisation was compounded by a backward-looking message that failed to resonate.

"The economy, healthcare and climate change is where it's at this time," Nagle said. "But Biden was talking about civility, which people don't care about, and international relations, which people care about but they're not going to vote on."

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He was boasting about his past accomplishments and electability, without offering a concrete vision of where he wanted to take the country.

Polls have suggested Democratic voters are torn on whether they want a candidate who has the best chance to beat Trump or one who espouses a clear, bold political vision. Many of those in the latter have proven to be durable supporters of Bernie Sanders.

Biden's previous strength of "electability" seemed suddenly ephemeral. Democrats in Iowa, and across the US, began to wonder if he was the winning ticket after all.

By New Hampshire, the campaign was taking on water fast. At a rally in a high school gymnasium in Hudson, Biden appeared exhausted and dispirited. In a meandering speech, he took 15 minutes to deliver an applause line, as he recounted stories about medical tragedies, home foreclosures and lost jobs in a tired monotone. By primary day, Biden had already left for South Carolina, symbolically giving up before the final dismal results were announced.

In Nevada, Sanders ended up winning the state's caucuses by a decisive margin. But Biden placed second, giving his campaign enough life to soldier on.

A second lease on life

While the Nevada votes were still being counted on Sunday, Biden was on his way back to South Carolina, to start a frenzied final week of campaigning. On Monday night in Charleston, the contrast with his sometimes lacklustre events in New Hampshire was stark. The event in a College of Charleston gymnasium had not one but two bands, as the crowd was urged to chant "ready for Joe!"

The candidate himself seemed to have a new sense of energy and urgency, and a new rhetorical strategy - he focused on his plans for healthcare, gun control, addressing climate change and tackling student debt. He drew sharp distinctions with Sanders, saying his proposed programmes would be too expensive and disruptive for many Americans.

Unlike his New Hampshire appearances, Biden led with easy applause lines about defeating Trump, instead of drawn-out stories.

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"I personally think that he is the only one that could beat Trump," said Robert Davis, a retiree who lives in nearby Seabrook Island. "Electability, that's the number-one issue."

Robert's wife, Cynthia, added that she thought Biden's struggles were more a reflection of the primary system, not the candidate. Fortunes, she said, were turning for their man.

"Where we start the election process is not where a candidate like Joe is going to be strong," she said. "And so by the time you get into real America, he's already fallen behind, so it puts him at a real disadvantage."

Words of warning

If South Carolina offered rays of hope for the previously beleaguered Biden campaign, his week of South Carolina events - in Charleston and elsewhere - still offered their share of warning signs, too.

The former vice-president continues to struggle to attract younger voters. Even among those who showed up at Biden's College of Charleston rally on Monday, there were concerns.

Jonathan Powell, who is backing Biden, said all his friends are for Sanders and that they regularly try to convince him to switch.

"I mean they've got valid points because I'm more progressive," the 24-year-old from Sommerville said. "I probably agree with Bernie more, but I'm not sure he can get things done."

A College of Charleston junior, WJ Queen, said he grew up in the conservative town of Gaffney but doesn't like Trump and would keep an open mind about Biden. He says most of his fellow students, however, think Biden is a nice enough man, but they're more inspired by candidates like Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders.

"They're looking for a more diverse perspective, and Joe Biden does come off sometimes as the old white man in the room," he said. "Or they want somebody who is really out there trying to help the working class, and Bernie Sanders does have that genuineness to him."

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If the young are Biden's weakness, the bulwark of Biden's support in the state remains black voters, who traditionally make up more than 60% of Democratic primary participants. Even here, however, the age divisions are apparent.

"In South Carolina, you have a lot of older black people that are really riding with Joe Biden because they feel like, policy aside, they're just looking at it as which white dude will other white dudes vote for, and they don't want to waste their vote," said KJ Kearney, a 36-year-old writer and activist from Charleston.

"People who are younger, my age, we can be a little bit more idealistic and vote for people who have the policies that we want because we feel like we have a little bit more time to make the change that we want to see in the world."

Recent surveys suggest Sanders - as well as Steyer - have been making headway with black voters as a whole, but the man who spent eight years as vice-president to Barack Obama still has considerably goodwill in the state's black community.

Read more on Bernie Sanders

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"I feel that he'll do a good job," says Penny Henderson of Taylor, who attended the Reverend Al Sharpton's candidate forum on Wednesday morning. "Because of his experience and because of being with Obama, who was to me an excellent president."

Henderson, who is not yet fully sold on Biden, says her top concern is finding someone who can beat Trump - a common theme among South Carolina Democrats of all backgrounds.

At Biden's Georgetown event, Mary DeVey, a retired nurse, said she made up her mind to go with Biden over Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar just a day earlier. After watching Biden struggle in earlier debates, she had her doubts - but seeing him in person made her more confident in his abilities.

"I thought he might have lost a step or two, but it really re-enforced that he didn't," she said. "He's really sharp and stands up for what I stand for."

Mary Pat Donnellon, a software company worker from Charleston, says she settled on Biden after his second-place finish in Nevada because he seems to be the moderate candidate best positioned to stop Sanders, who she thinks is unelectable, and because he's a "good and decent human being".

The path ahead

A path to the Democratic nomination that seemed clear in the days after Biden entered the race last May is now beset with complications. His early weakness in last year's debates, as well has his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, have prevented him from knocking out other candidates appealing to the same moderate voters.

It has also opened the door for the late arriving Bloomberg to use his multibillion-dollar personal fortune to elbow into the presidential conversation.

Meanwhile, Sanders has consolidated much of the support of the progressive left.

Perhaps the only thing that's clear is that Biden, who is making his third bid for the Democratic nomination, won't let go of his White House dreams easily.

"You don't have to do this, Joe, you really don't," Obama reportedly told Biden last year as the former vice-president was considering a presidential bid.

The former president reportedly predicted a rough campaign ahead and had concerns that Biden's team was too old and too out of touch - worries that it is safe to say have at least partially come to fruition.

Biden, per the New York Times, told Obama he wished he had run in 2016 and could never forgive himself if he didn't take a shot at unseating Donald Trump

If he ends up getting that chance at this point, South Carolina Democrats - and what they do on Saturday - will be a big reason why.

Additional reporting by Haley Thomas

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