COLUMBIA — As nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates here for a ritual fish fry event that marks the symbolic kickoff of the South Carolina campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be enjoying considerable early support, especially from the capital’s tight-knit black community.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” gathers African-American party leaders, deep-pocketed Democratic donors, presidential candidates and reporters in a backyard-style cookout full of free food and hokey line dances during the state’s customary Democratic weekend.
While the state’s black Democrats are hardly monolithic, interviews with prominent Democratic operatives and Columbia locals reflect what the polls already appear to indicate: Biden, in spite of his recent gaffes, appears to have a clear leg up with black voters here.
And that support could prove crucial to clinching the eventual nomination.
“If you’re flirting with the idea or if you’re running for president, there's two things you know: The road to heaven and the White House runs through South Carolina,” said South Carolina based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “As you look holistically at the Democratic Party, that is a mere reflection, I think, of the current mood and temperature of the Democratic Party as a whole.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, agreed.
“South Carolina really can change an election, because it’s the first state of the first four or five states that has a large minority population. And everyone knows that black and brown people for the most part are the most loyal and consistent part of the Democratic base. So it’s a test: If you can’t win here, the odds are you can’t do well in other places that have large minority populations.”
Seawright touted the area’s African-American and women voters, who turn out, in his estimation, at rates of 60 and 55 percent. It’s a key demographic that threw overwhelming support behind then-candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and former President Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. According to nonprofit Higher Heights, Clinton won more than 89 percent of the state’s black women; Obama pulled similarly high numbers in his respective races. Biden currently carries 76 percent of black Democratic support, leaving a 12-point gulf between him and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Suffice it to say, there’s real power in black numbers.
Word of mouth and recommendations, coupled with party loyalty, goes a long way in South Carolina, said Charleston NAACP president Dot Scott. Biden is seeing an onslaught of preliminary energy and support, she added, due in no small part to his close association with Obama, which in turn vollies him high above the other candidates.
“It doesn't hurt Biden that he served as the vice president under our first African-American president, so if we're speaking just about Biden and black votes, he's probably going to get the lion's share,” said Scott.
In lieu of valuable face time with Obama, several candidates are vying for the affection and blessings of Representative Jim Clyburn, arguably one of the most powerful House Democrats, who aligned himself with both Clinton and Obama. A source who spoke to Clyburn in recent weeks said the influential congressman was shown data from Rep. Cedric Richmond indicating that Biden has the best chance to win a general election. Clyburn found the pitch pretty convincing, the source said.
Yet Clyburn is unlikely to make a public push behind a candidate at this unpredictable early stage, even though he recently came out in defense of controversial remarks made by Biden.
In a recent testy exchange, Booker criticized Biden’s remarks touting his relationships with segregationist leaders on Capitol Hill. While many in Washington expressed concern and speculated about how those remarks might threaten Biden’s chances, voters in Columbia seemed less pressed.
“Despite the hiccup we're having,” said Scott, referring to the exchange, “I think we're smart enough to realize that sometimes things that are said are just not delivered well.”
Even Rep. John Lewis, perhaps the most prominent civil rights activist on Capitol Hill, jumped to the defense of Biden Friday morning.
“I don't think the remarks are offensive. During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan,” said Lewis. “We never gave up on our fellow human beings.”
Several Columbia residents said in interviews with Yahoo News they felt that Biden’s comments were misconstrued.
Albert Henry, a 39-year-old barber at a neighborhood mainstay (and Clyburn’s cuttery of choice), Toliver's Mane Event. Henry, an undecided voter, feels like his peers — employed young black men — are hungry for a candidate who can guarantee job stability and easy access to health care. He says a candidate that looks like him — namely, someone black — would be a welcome step, he and his friends are far more concerned about who can work across the aisle to pass legislation. And Henry trusts Joe Biden at the gut level. Still, he’s willing to give Booker and Harris a chance.
“I feel as though regardless of who represents me, I want to be represented by someone who can guarantee that I’m able to go to work, make an honest living, provide for my family, and be a reliable citizen in the community,” said Henry. “Biden has a proven history there.”
Booker will have that opportunity Saturday morning, as he starts off his post-fish fry swing at the famous barber shop. He’ll face a sepia portrait of a young Clyburn that sits across the way from a framed photo of Obama and Clyburn chatting. Underneath the portrait, the caption reads: “JIM HAS THE PRESIDENT’S EAR AND WE MUST HAVE THEIR BACKS!!!” signaling an unflinching South Carolinian loyalty.
In the meantime, Booker’s prospects here are dimming. Sliding poll numbers have Booker holding onto Palmetto State support at 5 percent. And there’s doubts that he’ll be able to keep pace.
Herbert Toliver, a barbershop owner of 40 years who maintains a close personal friend ship with Clyburn, declined to speak to Yahoo News on the record. Another one of Toliver’s longtime regulars, 81-year-old Johnny Thomas, said he “simply wants to provide for their family,” a common refrain among working-class blacks here.
Thomas, a self-identified Democrat, feels like this week’s criticism of Biden was overblown. “It’s all anyone is talking about down here. Many other candidates want to knock one another around. But Biden shows that he can work with many others, even the ones who call him names or call us names. He can solve a problem,” added Thomas.
There’s one other candidate who got Thomas’s eye — Elizabeth Warren. “It’s past time to see a woman lead the country” said Thomas, who is open to throwing his weight behind either white candidates.
Yet Scott hears friends and colleagues speak highly of Sen. Kamala Harris in casual conversation, too, often in tandem with Biden. Harris has spoken publicly about her disdain for being assumed a de facto vice presidential candidate; though many in South Carolina support the idea.
“It’s almost like her name comes up with Biden’s name,” said Scott. “It might be the fact that she's an African-American woman and we can't help but be proud of where the African-American women is and for, I think, the first time sincerely being looked at as the deal breaker here, for the candidates that come here.”
One common thread among Democrats here is a basic question about the candidates: Who will outfight, outlast, and outperform Donald Trump?
For many Democrats in South Carolina, Joe Biden wins every time.
“One thing I can tell you with absolute resolute is that we just want someone to change who’s in the White House,” says Scott. “That’s how the conversation always ends.”
Read more from Yahoo News: