On the night of the New Hampshire Primary, presidential candidate Joe Biden was already in South Carolina, and trying to put behind him what would be a 5th place finish that day. That evening , Biden appeared at a party that had all the markings of a victory celebration, with a crowd of about 200 and a Gospel choir, singing about salvation.
“Up to now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party, the African American community,” Biden told enthusiastic supporters, many of them Black. He added: “99.9%. That’s the percentage of African American voters that have not yet had a chance to vote in America.”
The ability to mobilize Black support in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Feb. 29, and across the South has long been the foundation of Biden’s candidacy — a presumed advantage that would highlight his capacity to forge a diverse coalition to take down President Donald Trump.
And a new poll this week showed Biden’s support among Black voters nationally had fallen from 49% last month to 27% this month.
While Biden remains the favorite among many South Carolina party leaders, several state Democrats say that another candidate, Tom Steyer, has become a significant factor in the primary race here. Steyer, a billionaire from California, has been aggressively courting Black voters, spending heavily on advertising and lavishing money on businesses across the state.
Political advantages that once seemed a formality for Biden’s campaign — like the endorsement of the state’s most powerful Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn — are now uncertain; two people familiar with Clyburn’s thinking say he is increasingly worried about endorsing a candidate who is not guaranteed to win the state.
Two other Black Democratic officials in the state Wednesday endorsed one of Biden’s rivals, Pete Buttigieg, who had struggled for most of the campaign to attract any African American support.
“The thing about it is, I don’t know how much real solid support he ever had,” said JA Moore, a state representative from Charleston, who had come to Biden’s party Tuesday to listen but was not convinced. Moore was one of the Democrats who endorsed Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who finished well ahead of the former vice president in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Black voters make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate here, and the Biden campaign expressed confidence they will buoy his candidacy in the primary in a little more than two weeks.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat who has endorsed Biden, insisted that voters of color in his Charleston-area district would not take cues from the heavily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Many, quite frankly, want to send a message contrary to what we’ve seen in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “Because people are disappointed that those two states are viewed as speaking for the rest of the Democratic Party.”
Biden’s campaign, in turn, is making clear that South Carolina counts: Even as they face a financial strain following his lackluster early performances, Biden officials are pouring money into a state they hope can revive his candidacy.
On Wednesday, the campaign placed nearly $825,000 worth of advertising on South Carolina’s airwaves.
Still, for Biden, it is difficult to run on a message of electability after opening the primary season with fourth- and fifth-place finishes. Those weak performances have sent him tumbling in the polls and underscored long-standing rules of political gravity in presidential primaries: Candidates cannot assume that their momentary strength in states voting later in the calendar can withstand early struggles.
“Let’s be honest; he was the vice president under the first African American president so his early name recognition was really high and that lifted his numbers,” said John King, a state lawmaker who recently endorsed Steyer.
The heightened stakes have made other challenges more apparent, including the sometimes awkward fit between Biden and a new generation of young, Black elected officials who are sweeping the South. Compared with Clyburn’s generation, this group is less moved by arguments of deference and the chummy collegiality of beltway politics. Instead, they view themselves as ambitious insurgents.
One of the up-and-comers, Moore, ticked off a list of what he views as blemishes on Biden’s record that should be barriers for Black voters: Biden’s past support for crime bills that some experts argue resulted in harsh sentences for Black offenders; his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing; and his eulogy for Strom Thurmond, the state’s onetime Dixiecrat senator.
“Joe Biden wasn’t selected as a running mate for Barack Obama because he was a civil rights activist,” said Moore, who had supported Sen. Kamala Harris before she withdrew. “It was because he was a safe white choice.”