Joe Biden will have his first chance this weekend to demonstrate whether he can attract the type of diverse coalition that twice sent Barack Obama to the White House.
The former vice president has opened his presidential campaign with explicit appeals to white, working class voters across the Midwest, pledging his allegiance to unions and promising to rebuild the middle class. His premier trip to South Carolina as a 2020 contender on Saturday will gauge whether his message will resonate among black voters whose support will be crucial in winning the nation’s first southern primary.
Proving that he can win over black voters would be an essential part of Biden’s argument that he is the most electable Democrat in the race. Obama was the last Democrat to win the White House, and his success was based in part on his ability to unite black and white voters against his Republican foes.
But Biden is facing plenty of competition in South Carolina. At least 15 Democratic candidates have held more than 100 events here so far this year. Two of his rivals — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — are black and are making explicit appeals to African American voters. Biden is aiming to distinguish himself by relying on his decades-long ties to the state and the goodwill he generated during eight years as Obama’s deputy.
“He is a known quantity in this state,” state Sen. Gerald Malloy, a member of South Carolina’s Legislative Black Caucus and chairman of this year’s state Democratic convention, said of Biden. “I think that there’s a longing … for the service of President Obama, and Vice President Biden right at his side.”
Obama remains popular among Democrats in the state, where he soundly defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Much of that support came from minority voters, who comprise most of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters.
Biden has maintained South Carolina ties dating back decades with his enduring friendships with fellow long-serving senators Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, both of whom Biden has eulogized. He and his family have vacationed regularly in a resort area near Charleston, reportedly hunkering down there as he mulled — and ultimately chose not to pursue — a 2016 presidential campaign.
In 2018, Biden made several endorsements in South Carolina races, backing James Smith for governor, as well as longtime friend and adviser Dick Harpootlian’s successful legislative bid. He also supported Democrat Joe Cunningham’s campaign in South Carolina’s 1st District — the first in South Carolina to flip from red to blue in decades — and backed the state treasurer campaign of Democrat Rosalyn Glenn, who is now on-board as Biden’s state coalitions director.
He’s parlayed those ties into a strong team. Kendall Corley, Obama’s two-time South Carolina director and African American voter outreach specialist, is Biden’s state director. Deputy director Mariah Hill managed Cunningham’s campaign, and political director Scott Harriford was Smith’s deputy political director and has worked with Cunningham.
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is the highest ranking African American in Congress, said Biden appears to be the candidate to beat in his home state.
“I was home for two weeks … and I saw that a lot of people told me that they were waiting to see what Biden was going to do,” Clyburn said in an interview. “I suspect that, outside of Delaware, Biden might spend more time in South Carolina than any place else.”
Publicly, at least, other Democratic presidential candidates aren’t fazed by the Biden effect.
Asked about Biden during a recent campaign stop in Columbia, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, “I will run my race.” In Manning, Booker told reporters he’s committed to a positive campaign.
Questioned in Orangeburg about the fact that Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the early front-runners, are white men in their 70s, Harris said, “Look, it’s early. … And I actually wouldn’t hang my hat on that, period.”
Russell Ott, a Democratic representative in South Carolina’s House, says that many voters here are balancing the appeal of a fresh face with someone experienced, like Biden, who could go one-on-one with President Donald Trump in a general election.
“That’s another plus for Biden — he’s been in that pressure cooker,” Ott said, referencing Biden’s national-level experience. “For some of these candidates, even ones we may like a lot, this is truly going to be auditions.”
Name recognition aside, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said Biden could have the ability to seal his hold on South Carolina, as long as he remains authentic, and doesn’t tack to the left too much during a combative primary.
“He’s middle of the road, and that’s what we need. Quite frankly, he’s more Obama-like than many of the candidates in the field,” said Kimpson, also a Black Caucus member. “I don’t expect him to show up in a black church all of a sudden speaking in a southern accent, espousing ideas from New York City.”