He is a Caucasian septuagenarian with decades of Washington experience in a party that prizes youth and diversity and is clamoring for progressive change.
But when it comes to the contest for African-American support here in this crucial presidential primary state, Joe Biden shouldn’t be underestimated.
That’s the assessment of African-American faith leaders, state legislators, voters and party operatives in South Carolina, an early-voting state where black voters make up the majority of the Democratic electorate.
“There is still significant support for the vice president in the African-American community,” said Rev. Joseph Darby, an influential Charleston pastor who calls Biden a longtime friend, though he wasn’t making an endorsement.
Added state Sen. Marlon Kimpson: If Biden runs, “he shakes up the race, his entry into the race shakes up the entire field. He certainly emerges as a very formidable, top-tier candidate, if not frontrunner.”
Certainly, Biden’s potential challenges as a candidate are well-known, and they are legion. He is 76 years old at a time when Democratic voters overwhelmingly say they are unenthusiastic about older candidates. His lengthy record includes positions that are already running afoul of today’s energized progressive base—and in some instances, of the broader party—and further scrutiny is sure to come. He would scramble to catch up in fundraising and early-state organizing, and he would confront a competitive field that includes several candidates of color, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, two African-Americans who are generating palpable enthusiasm on the ground here.
Yet some South Carolina Democrats say national strategists and pundits are too quick to dismiss Biden when they chalk up his early lead in the polls to name ID alone, arguing that his standing with African-Americans—at least initially—runs deeper than that here.
“Conventional wisdom will say, ‘yes, he has a problem,’ but I don’t think we’re living in conventional times,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “I know millennial voters who think he’s the best possible candidate, not just to win the primary but to win back the White House.”
Consider Aris Ferguson, a 28-year-old attorney who attended a campaign event with Harris in St. George, S.C., about an hour outside of Charleston on Saturday.
“She not only empathizes, she sympathizes,” Ferguson said of Harris. “With the government we have, as a young black professional woman, I want to feel heard and represented. While that doesn’t require someone who looks like me, it does require someone willing to listen to me. She proved that.”
But Ferguson is not ready to commit.
“I am waiting to see whether Biden announces,” she said. “I do like him. I’m not saying I’m going to vote for him, but in terms of leaders of the Democratic Party, he’s one.”
Indeed, multiple African-American women in attendance at Harris’s campaign stops in South Carolina over the weekend said they were excited to learn more about her, but also very much hoped Biden would enter the race.
In St. George on Saturday morning, Pat Morris sat perusing a printout of Harris’s Wikipedia page ahead of a meet-and-greet with the California senator.
“I really don’t know,” she said, asked for her thought on Harris. “That’s why I’m here.”
But she lit up when asked about Biden.
“I’m waiting to see if Joe Biden’s going to run,” said Morris, 69. “Biden is OK. He’s been a good guy for years. I would love to see him run.”
And at an institutional level, Biden would begin his campaign with significant goodwill.
Activists point to his role as vice president to Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, his friendships and relationships in the state that date back years, and his vast experience in government compared to the rest of the field. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told The New York Times in January that “if Biden gets in the race, everybody else would be running for second place.”
“He has been very, very much endeared to the black community in a number of ways,” said Dot Scott, the president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. “The fact that he served as vice president for the first African-American president and was able to form the kind of bond that seems to have existed between the two of them, that’s another signal to the black community that there must be something special about that man.”
The key question is whether that affection translates into votes in about a year.
“Hillary Clinton was up 35 points in South Carolina in ‘07. That ain’t worth a hill of beans,” said former state representative Bakari Sellers, referencing the 2008 presidential primary in which Obama eventually won South Carolina. Biden “is in the 2007 Hillary Clinton presidential primary position, I think he’s squarely there.”
The African-American community is hardly monolithic, and there are opportunities for multiple candidates to break through. Harris and Booker in particular have made strong impressions in the state, with plenty more time to introduce themselves and expand their bases—and for other candidates to emerge.
Two senior operatives involved in efforts to draft Beto O’Rourke into the race are based in South Carolina, Bernie Sanders maintains support especially among younger voters, and a host of other candidates have been through the state and made positive impressions.
“If the election was today, Biden would be in a lot better stead than in the first quarter of 2020,” Sellers said, calling South Carolina “Kamala’s state to lose.” “Name ID alone is not enough to win these primaries. When voters get more familiar with Harris, Beto gets in the race, I think he might not necessarily bleed support, but a lot of that African-American undecided vote is going to firm up for others.”
It is also unclear how Biden would fare, especially with younger voters, if his lengthy record gets re-litigated in this more progressive moment, which it surely will if he runs. He has long been criticized over his handling, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, as Thomas faced accusations of sexual misconduct from Anita Hill. Those issues are even more explosive today.
And just last week the Washington Post resurfaced comments from the 1970s that Biden had made about busing and its role in school desegregation, which immediately proved controversial. Harris was asked about those remarks when she spoke with reporters in Charleston on Saturday. The moment allowed her to organically draw a contrast.
“I will just speak on behalf of myself, and this is not a reaction to statements he made decades ago, but there is no question we need, still, to integrate the schools of our country,” she said. “And I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, Calif. public schools in the ‘70s, when the decision to desegregate schools in America took place in the ‘50s. And so justice has been slow to come to America on the issue of all of our children receiving equal resources to be able to be educated in public schools. It’s still a problem.”
Several African-American leaders in South Carolina said that the bar is high for those past moments to affect Biden’s current standing, at least for now.
“There are not enough negative things, things that usually come out in campaigns, or maybe some prior votes, it’s not such that I think it’s going to be something that now African-American folks are going to look at it and see it as new information,” Scott said.
Added Darby, who also praised Harris: “Joe’s response will be important, but I think impact on his base will be minimal. Most of his supporters know that his record has been out there for years and remember him not as the senator from the ‘70’s but as President Obama’s friend and ‘wing man.’”
For Brittany Mathis, a Charleston County Democratic Women official, and her fiancé, Daku Siewe—a young couple of color—Biden’s past controversial remarks weren’t top of mind. In their eyes, the bigger issues were his perceived centrism—and his age.
“I appreciate what Biden did as vice president, but I don’t think he should run,” Siewe, a 32-year-old radiology resident, said after a Charleston County Democratic Women chapter dinner. “The question would be, what would his policies be? If it’s going to be a second chapter of the Obama administration, if it is, the big question is, is that enough? Is the era of incremental change over or is it time for more sweeping reforms?”
Mathis, 33, was more blunt as she spoke in her personal capacity.
“I do think he has a place. I’m not quite certain it’s as a candidate,” she said. “I don’t want to go into ageism, but I think it would be great to have someone new in the field, new experience, someone who can connect with someone my age, who has tons of school debt. I don’t know if he can connect.”