'Biden could still win' South Carolina, experts say, as field remains split

When Joe Biden left New Hampshire on Tuesday before the votes had been counted in the state’s primary and held an event in South Carolina, it was widely viewed as a sign of desperation by a faltering campaign.

But while many have written off Biden’s presidential bid as being on life support, South Carolina political observers and insiders told Yahoo News that he’s still got a good chance of winning the Feb. 29 primary in the Palmetto State. 

“I think Biden could still win,” said Gibbs Knotts, chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston and the author of a book on the history of the South Carolina primary. “I think his long-term relationships that he’s built in this state mean something.”

Andy Brack, publisher of the Charleston City Paper, agreed. “[Biden] may be a little bit down and out now, but in South Carolina he’s still a very comfortable leader of national stature for most folks,” Brack told Yahoo News. 

Joe Biden in Columbia, S.C., earlier this week. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Biden’s campaign says they have more than 50 staffers in the state, and will be rapidly adding to that number in the coming days to avoid what could amount to a last stand should the former vice president fail to make a strong showing. 

A poll by East Carolina University released Friday showed Biden continuing to lead the field with 28 percent, ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders, at 20 percent. But Biden’s support was down from the 40 percent share of the vote he had in most polls over the summer, and South Carolina political experts agree that if he does pull off a victory there, it could be a narrow one. 

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., “are looking better than they did a month ago,” said state Sen. Kevin Johnson, who endorsed Biden in June. 

“I think that momentum carries forward some,” Johnson said. 

Gerald Herbert/AP

Johnson said he was confident in Biden’s chances. “It’s very important that he do well in South Carolina, and I think he will,” Johnson said. But he added that “if [Biden] wins” it probably won’t be “by as much as expected.”

Even a narrow victory there will be spun as a sign of weakness. State lawmaker Rep. JA Moore, who has endorsed Buttigieg, noted that Biden had “a commanding lead for an entire year.”

“If Joe Biden doesn't win by 15 points,” Moore told Yahoo News, “he lost South Carolina.”

Biden’s support in the state is expected to come largely from the African-American electorate, who make up about 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.

“South Carolina has always been a place of comfort, restoration, healing and hope for the VP,” said South Carolina Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “It’s home for him. And the one thing that is true about black voters is the loyalty and trust that comes with us.”

But Biden can’t count on African-American support across all age groups. He had 40-point lead among black voters over 65 years old in South Carolina, in the study released Friday from East Carolina University. The same poll showed Sen. Bernie Sanders leading among black voters in South Carolina who are 54 and younger, with 29 percent to Biden’s 26 percent and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer’s 23 percent.

A narrow Biden win is likely to be a muddled mess in terms of how it affects the primary contest as a whole, however. In fact, it’s hard to see any outcome in South Carolina that will be viewed as definitive. 

Bernie Sanders in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday. (David Foster III/Charlotte Observer via AP)

Buttigieg and Klobuchar both face daunting obstacles in winning over African-American voters in South Carolina. Although they will likely pull some portion of the vote due to their strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, but at this point — two weeks out from primary day — they appear to have firm ceilings. 

Steyer has spent more than $18.7 million in the state — much of it on digital and TV ads — and has been building a presence there since 2018, when he was traveling for Need to Impeach — his years-long campaign to remove President Trump from office.

“To Steyer’s credit, he didn’t just start investing. This has been a pretty long-term play,” Knotts said. 

By comparison, Biden has spent only $857,000 in South Carolina, according to CNN.

And then there is Sanders, who won New Hampshire and essentially split Iowa with Buttigieg. Sanders is a known quantity after running in 2016. In the South Carolina primary four years ago, he won 26 percent of the vote in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, receiving 96,498 votes out of 370,904.

“Bernie’s just sitting there with his rock solid 20 percent. He got 26 percent in 2016, but if he gets 20 percent this time, that will look pretty good,” Knotts said. 

As the most powerful lawmaker in the state, Rep. James Clyburn, said on MSNBC earlier this week: “It is a five-way contest right now.”

Clyburn has represented a southeastern district in the state since 1993 and is the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. If Clyburn were to endorse, that would carry great weight with the state’s African-American voters. 

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

Clyburn has indicated he does plan to endorse someone, but is biding his time. He told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that he would likely make his pick known after the South Carolina debate on Feb. 25. Clyburn also said that he’s “known for some time now” who he would endorse, but then said he could potentially switch his support and has a list of his top three choices. 

The debates are also expected to be influential. Klobuchar’s third-place finish in New Hampshire has been tied to her strong performance three nights earlier in a debate in Manchester. 

The Democrats will debate next Wednesday in Las Vegas ahead of the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses. Then, three days later, they’ll meet in Charleston, S.C., to hold their 10th debate of the campaign, ahead of South Carolina’s primary the following Saturday.

The relentless pace of the campaign intensifies even further three days after South Carolina, when 14 states hold primary contests on March 3. If South Carolina’s result is inconclusive, attention will move quickly to those Super Tuesday contests, especially since former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be on the ballot for the first time in some of those contests. 

South Carolina politics are notorious for their hardball tactics, and that could add an element of chaos to the mix. Already, some Democrats are raising questions about the legitimacy of Steyer’s support. 

Biden supporter Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state Democratic party, criticized one Democratic state lawmaker for taking $43,548 in a series of payments from Steyer’s campaign. 

The only thing everyone seems to agree upon is that while Biden still has a good chance of winning South Carolina’s primary, his chances at the nomination will have all but disappeared if he doesn’t.

Hunter Walker contributed reporting.

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