Joe Biden Needs Strong South Carolina Win to Keep Candidacy Alive

Jennifer Epstein
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Joe Biden Needs Strong South Carolina Win to Keep Candidacy Alive

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden is hoping for a win in South Carolina on Saturday to propel him to a strong showing three days later on Super Tuesday that would give fresh momentum to his flagging campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But Democrats say a massive win in South Carolina can only do so much to jump start his Super Tuesday operation. And even though he is 12 points ahead in the RealClearPolitics polling average of South Carolina, a huge blowout in the state might prove difficult with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the persistent strength of billionaire Tom Steyer.

Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and who isn’t backing a candidate this year, said she thinks Biden would need at least a 15 or 20 percentage point win in South Carolina to achieve “some sort of momentum that makes a difference in the three days before Super Tuesday.”

Even if he pulls that off, he has no real organization, staffing or advertising in most of the Super Tuesday states, where he’ll also face opposition from Michael Bloomberg in addition to Sanders.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Biden’s team says it will rely on the strategy it used in Iowa, counting on his name recognition as the former vice president to make up for deficiencies in money, field organizing and candidate time in the 14 Super Tuesday states.

Yet Biden’s fourth-place finish in Iowa gives reason for skepticism that the same game plan will be successful this time.

Still, the campaign is counting on scoring enough delegates on Super Tuesday, when 34% of the delegates to Democratic convention will be up for grabs, to stay in the race. It hopes that voters who don’t want Sanders to become the nominee will rally around Biden.

In addition, many of the Super Tuesday states are more racially diverse and have more moderate Democratic primary electorates than Iowa and New Hampshire, which could also help him perform well in many places.

“South Carolina truly is a launching pad for the Biden campaign. I know that Joe intends to win South Carolina and we hope it will be in double digits,” said Representative Terri Sewell, a Biden supporter whose Alabama district includes Birmingham and Selma. “I truly believe it will give us a win and be a win that will catapult us into Super Tuesday.”

The campaign’s approach with voters is built around “the vice president having been there and them knowing him from the Obama administration and his relationships in these places throughout the years,” said Molly Ritner, his Super Tuesday director. She said the focus is on heavily non-white areas such as Birmingham and Selma as well as Norfolk, Virginia, “where we can run up the score and get the most delegates we can with the fewest number of resources.”

Yet Biden’s operations in Super Tuesday states have been described even by his own aides as “scrappy,” with staffing and ad spending well below the rest of the top candidates.

His money deficit is evident on the airwaves and on the ground across the states with upcoming contests. The campaign didn’t make its first buys for Super Tuesday until Wednesday of this week, and after early voting periods had been open for weeks in a few states. The purchase had been in the six-figures but, after days of strong online fundraising, was upped to $2.2 million on Thursday, his campaign said.

The broadcast and digital advertisements focus on programs and stations that have African-American audiences in the southern Super Tuesday states, as well as California, Texas and Oklahoma.

Unite the Country, the pro-Biden super-PAC, said Thursday that it had made a six-figure ad buy across Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

“That tells you pretty much all you need to know,” Solis Doyle said. Even if Biden has an influx of campaign contributions after a big South Carolina win, it may be short notice for him to spend much of it in Super Tuesday states.

“Joe Biden’s got a lot of obstacles,” she added. “I’m not saying it’s not doable but it’s threading a really small needle.”

By contrast, Sanders has broadcast or reserved about $13.5 million in Super Tuesday ads and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have both already made seven-figure buys.

Bloomberg, at the same time, has spent nearly $200 million on advertising in Super Tuesday states, while also building up sizable field operations.

Two of the biggest challenges for Biden are early voting and the impact of still having a handful of moderates in the race – especially Bloomberg, whose team has made a concerted push to peel off black voters from Biden and has polled better with African Americans than any candidate other than Biden and Sanders.

Early voting in California began on Feb. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses. In Texas, it began on Feb. 18.

Much of Biden’s hope lies in southern states where black voters make up a large share of Democratic voters and that don’t have early-voting periods, including Alabama, Arkansas and Virginia, and in black congressional districts in other states.

He’s also looking to North Carolina’s First Congressional District, which is heavily African American, as one place where he can bank a delegate advantage over opponents. His travel itinerary beginning Saturday reflects these priorities, with stops in Selma, Raleigh, Norfolk, Dallas, Houston and California through Tuesday.

Biden isn’t expected to perform particularly well in three states where primary voters are mostly white – Maine, Utah and Vermont, Sanders’s home state.

But one Democrat close to Biden’s campaign pointed to Oklahoma and Massachusetts as two states where hitting the 15% threshold to earn delegates could indicate he’s experiencing a post-South Carolina bump.

The Biden campaign points to an uptick in fundraising as a sign that the tide is turning. It raised more than $1.2 million online on Wednesday, its biggest one-day grassroots haul since the day Biden got into the race last April.

Sanders has built up an especially robust operation in California, where he’s led Biden by roughly 10 points in recent polls, and according to experts could end up netting hundreds more delegates than his nearest opponent.

By late February, Sanders had close to two dozen offices in California and Biden had one, though his campaign began scaling up its operation after the Iowa caucuses. Buttigieg and Klobuchar have paid staff in the 12 states that vote on Super Tuesday. Biden’s campaign would say only that it is on the ground in every state voting on March 3 and did not respond to questions about how many of those states had paid staff.

Addisu Demissie, Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign manager, played down the importance of field operations at this stage of the race. “I think it’s overrated once you get to Super Tuesday,” he said, arguing that even the biggest operations in the large states voting on Tuesday – like Sanders’s in California -- are far smaller than they’d need to be to have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the race.

North Carolina Representative G.K. Butterfield, who represents the First District, which includes Durham and Greenville, said this week that he hoped he and his two House colleagues in the state who have endorsed Biden, Alma Adams and David Price, will “push him to the top” to win North Carolina “decisively” after what he expected would be a strong showing in South Carolina.

‘Fight to the End’

Still, he added that plenty of effort lies ahead if the Biden campaign can endure past Tuesday.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, we are not arrogant, we understand that this is going to be a fight to the end,” Butterfield said. “But hopefully we can avoid a deadlocked convention and build a consensus candidate before July.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Epstein in Hemingway, South Carolina at jepstein32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Max Berley

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