Can a South Carolina Legend Rescue Joe Biden’s Campaign?

Hunter Woodall
Reuters

GEORGETOWN, South Carolina—Joe Biden’s search for a comeback keeps falling short. 

Iowa, in his own words, gut-punched him. New Hampshire rejected any chance of him becoming the new “comeback kid.” Nevada allowed the former frontrunner to leave with a hint of hope and a distant second place finish

But between a decent debate showing and House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-SC) decision to endorse Biden on Wednesday, the wheels are in motion to finally deliver the former vice president something that’s eluded him in all three of his runs for president: a primary win. 

And, experts here said, that win needs to be big. 

Clyburn’s endorsement helps solidify what Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative and prominent Democrat, said “is going to be a pretty sound victory for Joe Biden.”

“I think Joe Biden would get across the hump anyway, but I think this extra push from Jim is going to make sure that it’s a more resounding victory,” Sellers said. 

With Clyburn’s endorsement also comes a network of residents who have deep and long-standing affection for the congressional leader. Biden supporters hope locally the South Carolina legend weighing in will sway undecideds who are waiting until the very end to make up their minds. 

Mildred Gallishaw, a 72-year-old Biden supporter, said she's hopeful Clyburn’s stamp of support will “make the people get out and vote.” 

“If I was undecided, it would impact me a lot because I respect Jim Clyburn a whole lot,” said Robbie Geathers, a 62-year-old water utility supervisor supporting Biden. “If I was not a supporter, that would have helped me [make] my mind up.” 

Biden doesn’t just need to win South Carolina, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University. He needs a decisive victory. 

“This could be the rescue he’s looking for,” Huffmon said of Clyburn’s endorsement. “Or the last ditch effort if it ends up failing.”

The endorsement of Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, carries “a lot of weight,” Huffmon said. That sentiment was echoed by Democrats, ranging from state and local leaders to everyday voters. Over 60 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary electorate is black, according to Huffmon.

“I think it’s extremely significant,” South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said ahead of Clyburn’s decision. “It’s one of the most coveted endorsements in the state of South Carolina.”

Clyburn has come to Biden’s aid at a time when the former frontrunner is in danger of effectively being knocked out of the 2020 race. 

Which is why, during an event in Georgetown on Wednesday afternoon, Biden made sure to lean in on the Clyburn hype, saying his “impassioned endorsement” made the former vice president “a little emotional.” 

“There’s no one that I’ve respected more than Jim all these years,” Biden said.

Other figures in the state had been more skeptical about Biden, Clyburn’s endorsement notwithstanding. 

Because of his tenure working under President Barack Obama, Biden “should be doing better than this and he’s not,” Rep. Justin Bamberg, an African-American South Carolina lawmaker who has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said earlier this week. 

“I don’t think that Joe Biden is going to do as well as some of the older African-American Democrats in this state may think,” Bamberg said before Clyburn’s endorsement became official. 

Many voters at Wednesday’s racially diverse crowd in Georgetown were quick to praise Clyburn, and the endorsement appeared to only add to their affection for Biden as his presidential run faces a crucial test. 

The hits Biden has taken so far in the Democratic primary also weren’t lost on some voters. Leah Turner, a 70-year-old retiree, said she plans to vote for Biden “unless I’m given a reason not to.”

“It’s a little concerning, his performance thus far,” Turner said. “But I’m hopeful. Haven’t given up hope.”

South Carolina was long seen as Biden’s firewall, with the thought that support from the state’s key population of black voters would push him to victory.  

That doesn’t mean a Biden victory won’t come without challenges, between Sanders’ momentum and billionaire Tom Steyer’s focus on the state.  Sanders, who lost the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by more than 47 points, comes into Saturday’s contest as the new national frontrunner, with convincing wins in New Hampshire and Nevada bolstering his 2020 case. 

Biden’s event in Georgetown was dotted with familiar dings at Sanders over Medicare for All and past policy positions, an approach Biden also tried in the final days before the New Hampshire primary to no avail. 

But he may have to overcome more than just his rivals’ momentum. 

Clyburn is “widely admired across the state,” said Debbie Smith, the chair of the Georgetown County Democratic Party, the area where Biden campaigned Wednesday afternoon. 

“I think it will have a good effect,” she said of the endorsement. “I don’t think it'll be enough to make a huge difference.”

The day before Biden’s appearance, Smith said he just “hasn’t been here much.” 

“I think maybe people feel like he was kind of taking it for granted,” Smith said. 

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