On the Sunday morning after he came a distant but face-saving second place in the Nevada caucuses, Joe Biden told a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, that his presidential ambitions now depended on them.
“You have in your hands the power unlike any time in a long time to determine . . . the next Democratic nominee,” Mr Biden told the congregation at Royal Missionary Baptist Church ahead of Saturday’s primary in the state.
The former vice-president hopes African Americans, who make up 60 per cent of South Carolina’s Democratic voters, will help him secure his first victory of the 2020 race. Winning a big, diverse state would help convince sceptics that he can build a strong national campaign after dismal results in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“South Carolina will give you a much better test of the viability of a candidate than Iowa and New Hampshire,” says Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina lawmaker and highest-ranking African-American in Congress.
The South Carolina vote was a decisive moment in Barack Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries in 2008 and again in 2016 for Hillary Clinton’s bid for the nomination.
The state is likely to be equally critical this year. For Mr Biden, who never misses a chance to talk about his “buddy Barack”, South Carolina is a make-or-break moment. The frontrunner status that he enjoyed for much of last year was built on rock-solid support among black voters that had appeared to be disappearing but has strongly recovered in recent days. Another poor showing could be fatal for his campaign.
South Carolina also has the potential to provide a further boost to Bernie Sanders, after his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and his decisive victory in last weekend’s Nevada caucus. Mr Sanders was routed in the state four years ago by Mrs Clinton because of weak support among black voters, but has much stronger backing this year.
With African Americans making up more than a quarter of Democratic voters nationwide, South Carolina is the first time that candidates put themselves before this crucial part of the electorate.
The primary should provide a strong indication of how they will fare on Super Tuesday on March 3 when 14 states, including some with big black electorates, award one-third of the total delegates. How the contenders perform in South Carolina will also help determine if the crowded field will be whittled down, making it easier for the remaining candidates to challenge Mr Sanders.
Pointing to the importance of black and other minority voters to the Democrats’ chances of ousting Donald Trump, Mr Clyburn says the last Democrat to win the White House by relying on a majority of white voters was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. “If you have the African American vote in South Carolina, and think about the Democratic vote in November, I think you get a good feel for the impact,” he says.
Jaime Harrison, former head of the South Carolina Democratic party who is vying to oust Republican senator Lindsey Graham in November, says the number of black voters has increased in the state amid improving job opportunities. He says there was a record 1m registered voters of colour. “That has never happened before.”
These are some of the African Americans that Mr Biden, who calls South Carolina his “firewall”, has been banking on. With regular references to his role as running mate to the first black president, he hopes to repeat Mr Obama’s record in the state.
In 2008, after winning Iowa but losing New Hampshire and Nevada, Mr Obama enjoyed a huge win over Mrs Clinton in South Carolina including 78 per cent of the black vote, according to data compiled by William Mayer, a politics professor at Northeastern University. In 2016, Mrs Clinton handed Mr Sanders an even bigger defeat by taking 86 per cent of the black vote.
Mr Biden led the polls in South Carolina by 20-30 points for much of last year. His support plummeted over the past month but in recent days has bounced back, and he leads Mr Sanders by an average of 14 points. The Vermont senator has made inroads with African Americans since 2016, partly by focusing more on race. Asked recently how his campaign had changed, he said: “We are much more diverse. It’s that simple”. Mr Sanders tapped Nina Turner, a popular black former Ohio state politician, to be his campaign co-chair.
Mr Biden may be losing some support from black women to rival candidate Elizabeth Warren. But he also did not count on Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager and climate change activist, who has shot into third place in South Carolina on 15 per cent, helped by a big TV advertising campaign that has boosted his support with African-American voters.
And while Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, is not on the ballot in South Carolina, he is polling well enough with black voters in other states to concern Mr Biden, despite criticism of his support for stop-and-frisk, a policing policy that has affected black males in New York.
Andre Perry, an African-American scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that while Mr Bloomberg was hit over the issue in his first debate, he has invested a lot in communities as a philanthropist which would help him with black voters on election day. He is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on his race.
“I’ll take infrastructure and advertising dollars over a debate stage moment any day of the week,” Mr Perry says.
If Mr Biden wins in South Carolina, it will be thanks to loyal African American supporters like Hester McFadden and Tracy Hughes. Speaking at Royal Missionary, Ms McFadden said Mr Biden was “genuine in heart, mind, body and spirit” and would unify the country. Her friend Tracy adds that his desire to help people appeals to black voters. “He’s lived the life that he speaks about. I truly believe that’s the reason President Barack Obama chose him,” she says.
But there were more ominous signs at the church. Wendy Ford, Fran Harris and Alliean Price, three black friends, say they really like Mr Biden, but had some doubts after watching what they thought was a pedestrian performance that morning.
“He’s not as fired up as the rest of them. He’s got a week to convince me,” said Ms Ford, prompting Ms Harris to add: “I’m leaning towards him, but like Wendy says, he’s not showing us a passion like he really wants it.”
The friends point to another hurdle: while the former vice-president remains the most popular choice for older African Americans, Mr Sanders is attracting young black voters. “My goddaughter, my daughter, my granddaughter all like Bernie,” says Ms Harris. Ms Price adds that her daughter is supporting “Bernie”.
At a rally in Charleston on Wednesday, hundreds of fans came to hear Mr Sanders, but the crowd included very few African Americans. One black high-school student at the event, Esante-Joy McIntyre, says Mr Sanders will do better than four years ago because he has made an effort to reach black voters across the state.
“This time he’s going to have a huge turnout, not only young voters but young black voters,” she predicts.
Kristen Wilder, 21, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, which holds its primary later in March, says Mr Sanders and Ms Warren are performing well with young black voters because they are doing a “great job” of showing up on campuses.
After topping the field in October, Ms Warren came third in Iowa and won no delegates in New Hampshire and Nevada. But she pummelled Mr Bloomberg in a debate last week, sparking a $14m fundraising haul, and repeated her attacks in a debate in South Carolina on Tuesday.
“Last week’s debate sparked some interest in her again,” says Ms Wilder. “Young people are excited.”
The all-white field of seven contenders have been leaning on African-American surrogates from South Carolina to Georgia in an effort to reach as many black voters as possible. Ms Warren is campaigning in South Carolina with John Legend, a soul musician, while Mr Sanders was endorsed by Killer Mike, a hip-hop artist from Atlanta.
Mr Biden was relieved on Wednesday when his old friend Mr Clyburn provided a critical endorsement.
Many contenders have also tried to stress their relationship with Mr Obama, who remains the most popular Democrat. Mr Biden slammed Mr Bloomberg for a video which made it appear, erroneously, that he had Mr Obama’s endorsement.
Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, a group focused on bringing women of colour into politics, says many candidates were too opportunistic in how they approached the black vote. “If candidates aren’t willing to meet black people where they are over time, they find themselves scrambling at the last minute trying to buy TV ads, appearing in a few churches and scrambling to shore up policy positions.”
She says Ms Warren could have done more to cultivate black surrogates, but that she was “number one” for policies to help black women — from economic justice and student debt to maternal health. “There is pent-up demand for a candidate who is going to carry the water of black women’s issues.”
Ms Warren won a valuable endorsement last week from Black to the Future Action Fund, a group created by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza to empower African Americans politically.
As Democrats argue over whether Mr Sanders could build a broad enough coalition to beat Mr Trump, Candice Quarles, a black city council member from Texas, which holds its primary on Super Tuesday, believes Ms Warren would be the strongest candidate. “We need someone who can electrify the progressives and young new voters and also the tried and true Democratic voters,” says Ms Quarles.
South Carolina will also provide a stiff test for Pete Buttigieg. Despite his early momentum he has the support of only 4 per cent of black voters in opinion polls. Mr Clyburn acknowledges that the fact Mr Buttigieg is gay might have hurt him with older conservative voters, but believes that younger black voters, such as his grandson who backs Mr Buttigieg, are not fazed.
Ms Wilder says he lost some support with younger black voters when he pivoted away from more progressive stances and came in for criticism about how he handled several issues as mayor of South Bend, including the demotion of a black police chief, and the fatal shooting of Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man, by a white police officer.
Ryann Richardson, a former Miss Black America, is impressed at how he handled the subject of the shooting when she pressed him about it at a meeting. “Here was this young white man talking to Miss Black America and acknowledging failure on his part and his police department,” she says.
Quentin Hart, the first black mayor of Waterloo, Iowa, says people should focus on how he helped rejuvenate South Bend as mayor and his “Frederick Douglass plan” to change “some of the systemic racial oppression”.
The latest polls show that black voters are much more undecided than their white counterparts, raising the prospect that there could be a late twist in the primary. Mr Clyburn, says he was struck by how many voters he spoke to at a funeral last week were still struggling over who to support. “More than half of those people asked me, ‘Who you think we outta vote for?’” says Mr Clyburn.
Moderates hope southern state will redefine race
On the eve of the South Carolina primary, the Democratic establishment and moderate presidential contenders are bracing themselves to see if anyone can stop Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist, from winning the nomination.
Mr Sanders has pulled far ahead of his rivals in national polls after his decisive victory in Nevada, which followed his New Hampshire win and wafer-thin defeat to Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor, in Iowa.
The Vermont senator is backed by 29 per cent of Democrats, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. Joe Biden was second on 18 per cent, followed by Michael Bloomberg on 14 per cent. The top three were trailed by Elizabeth Warren on 12 per cent and Mr Buttigieg with 10 per cent.
His surge has sparked concern among establishment Democrats who worry that his policies are so far left that the party will face trouble in both the presidential and Congressional contests in November.
Jim Clyburn, 79, the South Carolina lawmaker and House Democratic whip, says a nomination for Mr Sanders would be “problematic” for congressional races in South Carolina. But he hopes voters in the state would help reduce his momentum and help boost Mr Biden. “If voters here vote for their heart and their heads, South Carolina will redefine this race,” Mr Clyburn says.
If Mr Sanders ekes out another strong performance in South Carolina, it will only increase concern in the party establishment that there are too many moderate candidates in the field for any one to have a chance of overtaking the leftwinger.