Some black voters consider other front-runners as Biden looks to South Carolina

S.C. lawmakers say the former vice president may have "sat on a victory."

February 16, 2020, 12:01 PM

Presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden is leaning into his base of black voters more than ever.

Results from the New Hampshire primary were barely rolling in when Biden chartered a last-minute flight to meet with his supporters at a campaign event in South Carolina, a state where two-thirds of the Democratic electorate is African-American. His warm reception appeared to remove the sting of his fifth-place showing in the Granite State.

After coming in fourth place in Iowa just one week earlier, Biden’s success in South Carolina will be paramount as he aims to cement himself as “the most electable candidate” to go up against President Donald Trump in November.

“Look, we're moving in an especially important phase because up ‘til now, we haven't heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party -- the African-American community. And the fast and the fastest-growing segment of society, the Latino community,” Biden said in Columbia, South Carolina, last Tuesday.

The three-time presidential hopeful urged supporters to remain optimistic, reminding them that the first two voting states are not a true representation of the Democratic Party and therefore not a fair assessment of his campaign.

“When you hear all these pundits and experts ... talk about the race, tell them it ain't over, man. We're just getting started. Our votes count, too,” he said.

His defensive stance on the race is a far cry from where he was in late November when he officially filed for the South Carolina primary. He greeted voters at local soul food restaurant in rural Abbeville before telling ABC News that he felt “pretty confident” about the state of his campaign in the Palmetto State. At the time, he was boasting a double-digit lead in the polls with the highest name recognition in the race.

Biden so far is leading in South Carolina with 36% support among Democratic-leaning voters, according to a recent Fox News poll. Nationally, he now has 27% support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning African-Americans, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.

File Photo: Vice President Joe Biden is introduced by Rep. James Clyburn at the CBC Spouses 17th Annual Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts at the Nuseum Museum on Sept. 24, 2014 in Washington.
File-Earl Gibson Iii/Getty Images

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a longtime friend of Biden's, told ABC News that while strong political relationships aid in the campaigning process, they don’t guarantee a primary win.

“The support was real. I think I told people that. Joe Biden has a long relationship with South Carolina,” Clyburn said. “Joe has been all over and throughout South Carolina and he vacations here all the time. But that doesn't mean he will win South Carolina. It means he has that relationship with South Carolinians."

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, South Carolina’s longest-serving House member who was recently hired to be a senior adviser on Tom Steyer’s campaign, warned that Biden may have “sat on a victory” in the Palmetto State after showing strong standing in the state earlier. She said it could be difficult to make the case to voters who have started to look elsewhere in the Democratic field.

“Biden's lead was based on the perception that he was the strongest candidate to be Trump," Hunter told ABC News. "Over the month that image of him being the strongest candidate has diminished based on a variety of factors: his performance at debates for one and here in South Carolina. He hasn’t been in the state [as frequently]. There is goodwill towards him but all relationships must be maintained.”

“I think, in some large part, the Biden campaign has played it safe and on some level has taken the voters here in South Carolina for granted," she continued.

But Marvin Pendarvis, a surrogate for the campaign, said Biden still has a good chance of winning in the state.

“We know the momentum that he has here, the support that he has with so many of the people down here and so I think that what will carry him a long way once we get to the primary in a couple of weeks,” Pendarvis said, adding that “it’s still early.”

Bernie Scott, the founder of the "Reckoning Crew," a group of African-American women who support Biden, said her team plans to ramp up canvassing efforts on behalf of the campaign leading up to Feb. 29. Despite his poor finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa, Scott told ABC News' Martha Raddatz on "This Week" that she believes Biden is the right candidate for the Democratic nomination and plans to use to her influence to organize for his campaign and vouch for his candidacy.

"All of them would be better than what we have ... Vice President Joe Biden is the man of the hour," Scott said. "I think he has the guts and the awesome experience ... Vice President Biden has that knowledge of the other countries and know most of the leaders over there and he can get in there and make us feel good again."

In a campaign relaunch, Biden’s team sent more than 50 staffers into Nevada and South Carolina to bolster outreach in the must-win early voting states.

PHOTO: Supporters take selfies with Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C. on Feb. 11, 2020.
Supporters take selfies with Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C. on Feb. 11, 2020. The ability to mobilize black support in South Carolina has long been the foundation of Biden's candidacy.
Travis Dove/The New York Times via Redux

However, his newest push comes with new competition. Billionaire candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg have leveraged their massive campaign investments to get a lead in the race.

Bloomberg has garnered over 100 endorsements from mayors in delegate-rich states. His multi-million dollar television ad spending has caught the attention of voters across the country, including those in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, a small town where the mayor won voters in a surprising majority during the first in the nation primary.

South Carolina state lawmaker Rep. J. Todd Rutherford told Raddatz he’s strongly leaning toward endorsing Bloomberg.

“I am excited about the prospect of getting Donald Trump out of the White House. And I believe at this point, the only way to do it is to go with somebody that has the resources necessary to make it happen,” Rutherford said.

This election is "not about Democrats falling in love," he added. "This is about Democrats making sure that Donald Trump can no longer be the president. And people are so focused on that. Joe Biden's support here is starting to wane only because he'd limped out of Iowa, he'd limp out of New Hampshire. And we are not interested in somebody that cannot win.”

While Biden was competing with other front-running candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, Steyer has taken advantage of having South Carolina largely to himself.

Since launching his 2020 bid in July, the billionaire activist has built a robust team of 102 staffers. He spent upwards of $178 million in campaign advertisements with $18.7 million targeting black voters in South Carolina, according to Kantar/CMAG.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a South Carolina campaign launch party, Feb. 11, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Steyer’s robust outreach has resulted in his surge in South Carolina polling and subsequently, several candidates including Biden, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have complained that Steyer’s wealth gives him an unfair advantage in the race.

Rutherford told ABC News that if other presidential candidates are concerned with Steyer’s spending they need to “step up.”

“If Tom Steyer is investing money into South Carolina, that is what the process is about," he said. "That is what everyone should be doing. Investing money in South Carolina. We encourage that. And those people that are opposed to it should simply get out of the way."

Chester, South Carolina, resident Tabatha Strother said she is still deciding between Biden and Steyer. She will ultimately choose the candidate who visits her state and has the best economic proposals to beat President Trump.

"Showing up is important to me, not just as a citizen of South Carolina, but also for our country," Strother told ABC News.

ABC News' John Verhovek and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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