Why Joe Biden's South Carolina firewall isn't as solid as he thinks

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to supporters in Columbia, South Carolina, following the New Hampshire primary.

Posted: Feb 12, 2020 7:30 AM
Updated: Feb 12, 2020 7:30 AM

With a disappointing finish in today's New Hampshire primary a near-certainty, former Vice President Joe Biden is insisting that he will remain in the race -- pointing to the more diverse electorates in Nevada and, especially, South Carolina.

"Whatever happens on Tuesday, Vice President Biden will still be in this race," Symone Sanders, a top Biden adviser, said Tuesday. "This race very much runs through Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday."

So, how strong is Biden's South Carolina firewall, especially amid what looks likely to be two straight fourth-place or worse finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire? (He plans to go straight to South Carolina on Tuesday night from New Hampshire, his campaign announced Tuesday). I put that question -- and a few more -- to Schuyler Kropf, a top-notch political reporter at the Charleston Post & Courier.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: How much (or little) does what happened in Iowa (and will happen tonight in New Hampshire) impact South Carolina voters? How closely are they following it?

Kropf: I don't think what happened in Iowa or New Hampshire tonight matters a plate of potatoes in the South Carolina race in terms of siding with the winners. It is a complete and total restart, or can be.

Geographically, those two states are places far away from South Carolina, where the results are seen as "association" performances with where the candidates come from. Pete Buttigieg is a Midwesterner, so of course he is going to do well in Iowa. Same with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire.

Joe Biden isn't a Southerner, but he comes to South Carolina with deeper associations: Barack Obama, [Rep.] Jim Clyburn and [late Sen.] Fritz Hollings.

If anything, the results could scare Biden folks into rallying for him if that becomes the message his campaign sends out forcefully.

But -- and this is what I think has been overlooked the most so far -- this is the FIRST RACE HERE OF ANY KIND IN DECADES in South Carolina where Democrats have ballot choices.

For the past 25 years, Democrats have been clobbered in every statewide race, whether the candidate has some credibility or is a complete inexperienced longshot. None of these races since the 1990s have been competitive as the state went solid red, be it for governor or US Senate.

The lack of choices was especially a factor in 2008, when Barack Obama smashed Hillary Clinton, and then four years ago when Clinton won in a walkaway, even to the point that Sanders left the state early before the primary.

So of course the favorites won.

But now Democrats have a dozen people on the ballot. They are ecstatic.

With 6-7 new fresh voices Democrats have to pick from, both men and women, that is what is really confounding the so-called Biden firewall collapse.

Sanders, Steyer, Warren, even Yang and Bloomberg have their followers now, which is like I said, the rarity in a Democratic primary as the electorate spreads out and sprinkles across the board.

Even if Buttigieg is hypothetically polling at 10%, that's 35,000-plus voters in his camp in the state (assuming the turnout is above 2016's 350,000).

Cillizza: What is the current state of the race in South Carolina? Biden comfortably ahead?

Kropf: Biden is ahead horse-race style, but I don't know about comfortably.

We did a survey of the 46 county party Democratic chairs and most all mentioned Biden's name first as being the candidate at the top of their community's interest.

That's good news for him. But we described it as more as a "shrug" of support than clapping enthusiasm.

Sanders, Warren and Steyer all got votes from the chairs so it means Democrats are looking around, which is not what the Biden people want.

The big question that's to be determined is, what will non-committed Democrats do in three weeks, make a pick on some policy choice or play ping-pong in their heads over who has the best chance in the fall of defeating Donald Trump?

Cillizza: How much of a presence have the candidates had in South Carolina? Who has been in the state the most? Who is seen as having the best organization?

Kropf: Cory Booker and Kamala Harris made the most stops in the state, but they are long gone. Who's next among the current candidates? Steyer, with 38 events. Biden, meanwhile, is way down the appearance list at 23.

Steyer has made significant outreach to the black community, which will be better than 60% of the turnout in the primary.

He's doing more advertising and home mail outs than anyone. It shows what can happen with an unlimited budget.

Even if he finishes behind Biden here by 10 points, it's a huge bounce toward Super Tuesday.

Cillizza: Is there an "average" or "typical" South Carolina Democratic primary voter? What does he or she look like? What are his or her politics?

Kropf: No, there is no average or typical South Carolina Democratic voter.

South Carolina is going through an incredible influx of retirees and new faces moving in. We did an event with [former Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick recently and someone from his high school was in the audience to surprise him. He had retired down here [and] 50% of the 100 people there were Massachusetts transplants with Boston Red Sox hats on, so that tells you the appeal of getting out of the cold to the sunshine.

Beyond the black vote (which is by no means monolithic) that will dominate the turnout, we also have the same demographics as in other states. College students and young people, suburbanites.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "Joe Biden's biggest threat in SC is . Now, explain.

Kropf: "... not being here 24/7 from here on out." Biden is seen as a candidate who really hasn't been here that much. Is he counting on his name to win? That would be a mistake.

He has to campaign here and have big events even if his numbers don't keep up with the rockstar-like forums Sanders is famous for. The night before the February 25 debate, Biden is doing a big-dollar closed fundraiser. No big rallies have been planned. Shouldn't he be here all day Wednesday?

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be out of sorts to expect Trump to come down to South Carolina for a rally of some kind before the primary where he will say things about the Democrats. Biden needs to show energy.

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