Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arrives at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina before a march on Martin Luther King Day, January 20. Photo: Sean Rayford / Getty Images / AFP

No Democrat has won South Carolina in the past 11 presidential elections. None holds a statewide elected office. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and hold both US Senate seats and five of the state’s seven seats in the US House of Representatives.

And yet on Monday, eight of the 12 remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls were in Columbia for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) annual rally at the state capitol. They and most of the rest of what began as a field of nearly two dozen have been crisscrossing South Carolina for the last year.

Why so much time and money, in the form of advertising and paid staff, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the US?

It’s because two-thirds of Democratic primary voters in the state are African-American, and black voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party nationally. Republican presidential candidates rarely get more than 10% of their votes.

The South Carolina primary on February 29 is the fourth contest on the Democrats’ 2020 calendar – and the first one in a state with a large African-American presence. Just three days later, March 3, comes “Super Tuesday,” when 14 states representing more than one-third of the US population, will vote.

Whoever among the aspiring nominees can demonstrate strength with black voters in South Carolina will gain valuable momentum for Super Tuesday – and beyond, to the Democratic National Convention in July that will officially choose the party’s standard-bearer.

South Carolina is where Barack Obama made his breakthrough in 2008, and where Hillary Clinton seized control of the Democratic race in 2016. And it was where US Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both African-American, had planned to ignite their candidacies. Instead, they both fizzled.

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entered the race late and chose not to compete in South Carolina, concentrating instead on the Super Tuesday states.

Although both Harris and Booker are accomplished politicians with considerable personal charm, neither was able to connect with black South Carolinians. Neither was well known in the state, nor was either a phenomenal campaigner like Obama.

A series of polls by different organizations since September showed both Harris and Booker stuck in single digits among black voters in South Carolina. National polls reflected the same lack of support. Their campaign fundraising faltering, they both quit the race.

Instead, by far and away the favorite among African-Americans is Joe Biden. A Washington Post–Ipsos poll conducted this month shows the former vice-president with a 28-point lead among Democratic-leaning black voters nationally. In South Carolina, a Fox News poll gave Biden a 27-point lead.

Over a 48-year public career, most of it in the US Senate, Biden has made himself a known quantity in South Carolina’s black community, spending lots of time in the state and forging many deep personal relationships.

“He’s familiar,” the Reverend Joe Darby, an influential Democratic leader in Charleston, told the Reuters news agency. Biden has spoken at Darby’s African Methodist Episcopal Church banquet several times, the pastor said. “He doesn’t wait until an election year to show his face.”

Biden has built a record of doing things that are important to African-Americans; his efforts include extending the Voting Rights Act and passing the Affordable Care Act. But what has gained him the most credit is his service as Obama’s vice-president and the cordial relationship the two men had.

“It was one of the first occasions when people who look like me were able to see a white man standing proudly and loyally behind a black man,” Biden supporter Bernice Scott wrote in a recent op-ed column in the Columbia newspaper The State.

Critics, including supporters of other Democratic candidates, have attacked parts of Biden’s record that include opposing busing students to racially integrate public schools in the early 1970s, and helping pass harsh criminal sentencing laws in 1994 that are blamed for harming black communities.

The campaign co-chairman for Vermont’s US Senator Bernie Sanders, who, like Biden’s other Democratic rivals, trails far behind him among African-Americans, recently took up that line of attack.

Biden “has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress,” wrote Nina Turner in a State newspaper op-ed.

So far, the attacks don’t appear to have damaged Biden. He is most popular among older African-Americans – with a 60-percentage-point lead in the Washington Post poll among voters 65 and over.

Having seen white politicians, such as South Carolina’s late senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who changed and grew on racial matters, older black people are willing to accept that Biden is different now from what he was 40 years ago.

One of those people is James Clyburn, 79, the US House assistant Democratic leader, who is enormously influential in South Carolina Democratic politics. He told The State that older African-Americans remember a time when politicians like Biden were few and far between – white politicians who, while maybe flawed, were seen as sympathetic to the cause of civil rights and strove to do the right thing.

“The black community, as a whole, has a very long history of being lied to,” Clyburn told The State. “The reason there is distrust of politicians is because you promise them one thing, you double-cross them later. I grew up with that. I know that is a very strong feeling in the African-American community. They have a different experience with Joe Biden.”

Culturally Southerners

Meanwhile, Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination have all struggled to connect with black South Carolinians, who are culturally Southerners; many are deeply religious, and many are skeptical of the plans advanced by Sanders and by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for a restructuring of the US economy with massive government programs.

A Washington Post–Ipsos poll this month found that six in 10 black Democratic voters nationally say they are moderate or conservative; Biden gets 58% support among this group, compared with 14% for Sanders and 8% for Warren.

The poll also highlighted another factor contributing to Biden’s big lead among black voters: their intense desire to defeat President Donald Trump in the general election on November 3.

Nearly eight in 10 African-American adults said it is important to them personally that Trump not win a second term, with 66% saying that is “extremely” important to them.

On the question of which Democrat has the best chance to defeat Trump, Biden won going away – with 53%, compared with 14% who named Sanders. All the other candidates were in single digits.

Biden’s campaign this past summer appeared to be struggling in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states where voters will choose among the candidates. At that time, he was counting on South Carolina to be his firewall, the place where he could contain the damage from poor showings.

But recent polling now shows him to be at or near the top in both those early states, and a big win in South Carolina could instead be the place where Biden begins to look like the inevitable Democratic nominee – much as Hillary Clinton’s South Carolina victory against Sanders did for her in 2016.

South Carolina could also be the place where the candidacies of Sanders, Warren and the others get exposed as too narrowly dependent on educated white liberals. Sanders is the only candidate besides Biden to show any significant black support, concentrated among those under 35 years old – a group, that like their white counterparts, has historically failed to show up at the polls.

Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill who oversees a well regarded South Carolina public opinion poll, told The State, “Younger voters, in general, could … eclipse the older voters, but they’re not going to.”

All that adds up to a huge opportunity in South Carolina for Biden – provided he doesn’t stumble badly in Iowa and New Hampshire and then wins comfortably here.

South Carolina-based political strategist Antjuan Seawright said in The State, “You hear people say they trust him, you hear people say they know him. They feel like he’s the best fit to beat Trump. It all goes back to trust.”

Henry Eichel had a 37-year career as a newspaper reporter, all but one year of it at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. From 1975 on, he was the paper’s chief South Carolina correspondent, based in the state capital Columbia.

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