Here's why Clyburn's Biden endorsement could prove crucial ahead of South Carolina primary

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn on Wednesday morning threw his weight behind former Vice President Joe Biden, offering a much-needed boost for the onetime Democratic frontrunner who has fallen behind several of his competitors in early primaries.

“I want the public to know that I’m voting for Joe Biden,” Clyburn said at a press conference in Charleston, S.C., reminiscing about the devotion his wife, who died last year, had to the former vice president. “South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden.”

Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, has long been a force in presidential politics, thanks to his status as one of the highest-profile African-American leaders in the influential early state. Presidential candidates make a quadrennial pilgrimage to Clyburn’s famed “fish fry” event, a key stop for the contenders, and his endorsement has become one of the most anticipated events of the South Carolina primary. 

Clyburn’s influence was demonstrated in the 2008 presidential election when he backed Barack Obama, a junior senator, over Hillary Clinton, the presumed frontrunner. That endorsement was widely credited as a key moment in Obama’s ultimately successful presidential campaign. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., at the National Action Network's South Carolina Ministers' Breakfast on Wednesday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the fifth-ranked Democrat in the House, described Clyburn as a “towering figure” within the party.

“Without question Jim Clyburn’s endorsement is one of the most coveted indications of support anywhere in the country, particularly in the context of the South Carolina primary, certainly, but it goes much deeper than that,” Jeffries said.

Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden, who already enjoyed strong support from African-Americans in South Carolina, was not a total surprise. On Tuesday evening, prior to the announcement of the official endorsement, Politico reported that Clyburn would support Biden.

But Biden’s poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire, and second-place finish in Nevada, has made a strong showing in South Carolina’s Saturday primary all the more vital. The former vice president was expected to have a firewall in the state, thanks to a solid base of African-American support there. But after strong early showings from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s strength in South Carolina has been called into question.

A Democratic strategist in South Carolina, who spoke to Yahoo News prior to Clyburn’s endorsement, emphasized the importance of the endorsement and insisted it would carry weight. 

“Whomever and whenever the majority whip will endorse will have clear understanding about the political net worth of his endorsement and his political network in one of the most consequential states,” the South Carolina strategist said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, would not confirm Clyburn’s endorsement ahead of the announcement. However, Richmond described Clyburn’s backing as “really big” locally and nationally. He also underscored the strength of Clyburn’s ground game.

“He’s beloved in the state. He’s been a leader and, unlike other politicians, people look to see who he supports and take guidance from him,” Richmond said.

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