On the night of the New Hampshire primary, presidential candidate Joe Biden was already in South Carolina, playing to his base.
“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. However a new poll shows the candidate’s most loyal supporters are jumping ship following his poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden’s support among Black voters nationally fell from 49% last month to 27% this month.
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.
“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 primary party to listen but was not convinced. Moore is among the Black Democrats who endorsed Pete Buttigieg, who had struggled for most of the campaign to attract any African-American support.
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. In addition, former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s spending power is starting to gain him more African-American support. In fact, national polls show Bloomberg as the largest beneficiary of voters who are moving their support away from Biden.
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.”