The spotlight of presidential primary politics shines brightest on Iowa and New Hampshire. But for Joe Biden, there's an even more important venue in the opening weeks of Democrats' 2020 nominating fight: South Carolina.
Biden returns this weekend to the South's first primary state. It's the last among Democrats' first four nominating contests in February, but the first opportunity for the former vice president to prove his reach across the racial, ideological and geographic factions that make up the Democratic Party — provided he can get through Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada with his campaign still intact.
"When you get to states like South Carolina that actually look like the country, that is where I think the strength of a Biden candidacy is and will finally be reflected," Biden's campaign manager Greg Schultz said this week ahead of the candidate's latest South Carolina visit.
Biden's two-day swing is his sixth visit to the state as a 2020 candidate, and he often calls longtime supporters by name at his events and recalls "my old friend Fritz" Hollings, the state's former governor and decadeslong U.S. senator whom Biden eulogized in April.
Though polling suggests Biden has slipped some in South Carolina since his campaign launch, he still maintains a comfortable lead over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others in the state, including a considerable advantage among black voters expected to make up as much as two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate. Those dynamics stand in contrast to polling jumbles of Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders reflected in the other early states.
Biden aides insist that a broad coalition — significant support from older black voters, Latinos and white moderates, with enough votes elsewhere — still eludes all other Democratic contenders. That includes Warren, whose climb in national and early state polls positions her as a front-runner alongside Biden largely on the strength of her support from white liberals.
Delivering big in South Carolina, the Biden team believes, would create a cascade in similarly diverse states on Super Tuesday less than a week later, potentially giving Biden an early delegate lead.
Yet that strategy would be tested if Biden underperforms in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two February contests. A poor showing there would force him to spend weeks leading into Nevada and then South Carolina facing questions about his overall strength and reassuring supporters.
The scenario would become even harder if Biden's lagging fundraising continues into the new year. Warren had three times and Sanders nearly four times as much cash as Biden at end of September, raising the prospects that Biden will have fewer resources to reach voters directly.
Democrats in the early states see that peril, but are divided on how well Biden is navigating the campaign, and some of them note warning signs for Warren, as well.
"If Elizabeth Warren gets up a head of steam in Iowa and New Hampshire, she may be hard to stop," says Boyd Brown, a prominent South Carolina Democrat who is backing Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman. "But South Carolina can put the brakes on that, and if she doesn't do well here, then she suddenly becomes the next white liberal who can't get the black vote."
Indeed, recent history suggests both dual front-runners currently lack a clear nominee's strength.
"I plan on winning Iowa," Biden told reporters this week, and his campaign has built a staff for the Iowa caucuses on par with other leading contenders. But they've also come under fire from some Iowa Democrats, including in more rural and small-town areas where Biden expects to do well.
Monroe County Democratic Chairman Calahan Whisler said Biden's organizers in his area "don't do a damn thing," and he speculated that Biden's support could wane because "people view him as more of a safe bet" than an exciting choice.
Warren partisans argue those trends could put the Massachusetts senator on Barack Obama's 2008 trajectory. In 2007, Hillary Clinton was a prohibitive favorite nationally and in South Carolina, only to watch Obama pull an Iowa upset, prompting a stark reversal in South Carolina and other Southern state polls as black voters aligned with the Illinois senator who would become the first black president.
Biden backers answer with 2016. That year, Clinton, again a prohibitive favorite, underperformed in a narrow Iowa victory over Sanders, then lost badly in New Hampshire, prompting a narrative that she was in trouble. But her support in South Carolina held, as black voters and white moderates helped Clinton wallop Sanders 3-to-1.
Yet both comparisons overlook important variables.
Antjuan Seawright, an unaligned South Carolina Democratic strategist, said Warren can't necessarily depend on the kind of 2008 shift among black voters that Obama experienced: "That was about history. ... This is about beating Donald Trump."
Carol Fowler, an unaligned former state party chairwoman in South Carolina, noted that Clinton, even though she underperformed in Iowa, still won. Biden's support, she said, is still "soft" among some Democrats, particularly women who could move away from him late if a woman suddenly "looks like the candidate to beat Trump."
From Biden headquarters, Schultz notes that narratives around winning and losing early states can be overdone. Momentum from victories is important to fundraising and morale, he says, but the nomination itself is still won by delegates that Democrats award proportionally. And "That's our math."
Regardless, South Carolina remains for now the friendliest of political territory for Biden.
"We know Joe Biden," Seawright said. "Elizabeth Warren is building up, and others are out there working, but we don't know them like that yet."
Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe in Des Moines, Iowa, and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
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