Will black voters save Joe Biden?

Former Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters after speaking Tuesday night at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Von Miller knows that Joe Biden is counting on folks like him, a black Democratic voter in South Carolina, to help salvage his presidential campaign after crushing defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Yet Miller still can’t decide whether the former vice president has earned his vote.

The 45-year-old middle school teacher in Columbia said he values Biden’s decades of experience in Washington and thinks he has the clout to push his policies through Congress. But Miller cannot shake the feeling that Biden lacks the oomph to beat President Trump and that he’s coasting on the coattails of his relationship with former President Obama.

“I just need to see him hustle a bit more,” Miller said. “The message seems to be, ‘I’m Joe Biden. I know you’re going to vote for me.’ It’s almost like just because he was Barack’s old running mate, he assumes he’s got the black vote in the bag.” Miller is also considering voting for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

That’s bad news for Biden, who rushed here Tuesday night before the results from New Hampshire were all in. He now counts on an overwhelming victory in South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary to dispel the narrative that he is doomed.

Von Miller, a 45-year-old middle school teacher in Columbia, S.C., is unsure whether he will vote for Biden.
Von Miller, a 45-year-old middle school teacher in Columbia, S.C., is unsure whether he will vote for Biden.
(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

“It ain’t over, man,” he told a crowd of supporters in Columbia. “Up till now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party — the African American community.”
His campaign has long regarded the state as Biden’s firewall, given his longstanding support from African Americans, who make up three out of five Democratic voters, and his close association with the nation’s first black president. Yet some black voters can’t help but reconsider, discouraged by Biden’s poor performance.

He remains the Democratic front-runner here. But in recent months, Biden has slipped significantly as two rivals in the state — California billionaire Tom Steyer and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — have filled the air with advertisements and the ground with armies of foot soldiers.

“The firewall is in question at this point,” said Bruce Ransom, a political scientist at Clemson University. “Even a month ago, it seemed like it was a done deal. Now it looks like that’s in jeopardy.”

Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 won more than 80% of African American voters in the state’s primary, heralding support nationally that helped each win the nomination. While Biden faces more rivals, he led with support from just 30% of black Democrats in a nonpartisan poll last month for the Post and Courier/Change Research. But that was down 28 percentage points from the organization’s poll in May. Steyer and Sanders were close behind with 24% and 16%, respectively.

Among all Democratic voters here, Biden had 30% support, to 20% for Sanders and 18% for Steyer.

No polls have come out in the state this month, but a national Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this week showed support for Biden among black voters dropping to 27% from 49% since late January.


Biden supporters here dismiss Iowa and New Hampshire as overwhelmingly white states that do not reflect the nation’s diversity.

South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson fires up the crowd ahead of a town hall meeting with Joe Biden in July in Charleston, S.C.
(Meg Kinnard / Associated Press)

“We are not persuaded by what happens in Iowa or New Hampshire,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who is campaigning for Biden. “We’ve got a hymn we sing: ‘May the work I’ve done speak for me.’ Well, the work Joe Biden’s done speaks volumes to the people of South Carolina. We’re not going to turn our backs on him.”

Many voters stress that Biden represents the safest bet to beat Trump.

“He’s the best man for the country,” said Isaac Haigler, 71, the executive director of the Orangeburg Area Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. He was one of a few dozen who showed up last weekend for the opening of a Biden office in Orangeburg, a predominantly black city and Democratic stronghold 40 miles south of Columbia.

“He’s got know-how. He’s got experience in government,” Haigler said. “He’s a man of wisdom.”

A significant chunk of African Americans, however, lack enthusiasm for Biden, saying they are undecided or leaning toward other candidates.


“We need some new and fresh blood in Washington,” said the Rev. Cassandra Fuller, an associate minister at New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Orangeburg. After planning to vote for Biden, Fuller changed her mind and now prefers Steyer’s message on gun control, fair wages and making corporations accountable — and his outsider status.

“Joe Biden’s done some good things,” she said. “But he’s a career politician and we need someone other than a career politician at this time.”

Some political observers wonder if Biden, 77, can rally to inspire the voters once so inclined toward him.

“I don’t think you’re going to see wholesale abandonment,” said Carey Crantford, a Democratic consultant in Columbia. “The question is do you see enthusiasm that’s going to translate into turnout?”

Supporters urge calm.

“Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” said Jim Hodges, a former governor who endorsed Biden after the Iowa caucuses. “When you begin to do the math, if 65% of the vote is African American and he has a solid majority in that, he’s in cruise control to win the contest.”

Also, Hodges argued, no clear alternative to Biden has emerged. “Everybody talks about the firewall falling apart, but the question always becomes who would pick up the pieces?” he said.

Buttigieg, who narrowly won in Iowa and finished strong in New Hampshire, has the least support among black voters nationally of the top-tier Democratic candidates and, consequently, has not connected in the Palmetto State. Some question whether the nation is ready for its first gay president.

Sanders has generated enthusiasm among young voters, suggesting he may get more support than in 2016 when Clinton trounced him by 47 percentage points. Of all of Biden’s rivals here, Steyer has made the most significant inroads in black communities.

Those black voters who’ve soured on Biden cite a number of concerns: his lack of energy, his struggle to raise funds, and fear that Trump will drag Biden down over his son Hunter’s past involvement in a Ukraine gas company, though Republicans have offered no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.

Chandler Williamson, a 60-year old insurance agent in Columbia, S.C., is leaning toward voting for California billionaire Tom Steyer or former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

“Trump is a dirty politician,” said Chandler Williamson, a 60-year old insurance agent in Columbia. “You’ve got to have someone strong who can play dirty with him.” Williamson is leaning toward Steyer or former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with Biden his third choice.

Some also doubt Biden’s commitment to black communities. They cite his role in passing a 1994 crime law now blamed for the mass incarceration of African Americans in the years since and his opposition, as a young senator in the 1970s, to using federally mandated busing to racially integrate schools.

“I don’t think he’s the best candidate for African American values,” said Andre Jennings, a 30-year-old insurance sales agent in Orangeburg. Initially, Jennings supported Cory Booker, the African American senator from New Jersey who dropped out of the race. He is now leaning toward Steyer.

Beset with fundraising challenges, Biden pulled some ads in South Carolina last week. Even so, his campaign said it has strong local organizations, with regional directors who have fostered relationships with community leaders and elected officials in small towns and rural areas.

“The Biden organization in South Carolina is made up of some of the best talent we have,” said Antjuan Seawright, a black Democratic consultant in Columbia who is not working for any campaign. “When the ball game is on the line, you have to have the right players on the field to run your plays.”

A few prized local organizers have already defected, though. Edith Childs, a Greenwood County council member famed for leading the “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” chant that Obama made a staple of his 2008 campaign, announced two weeks ago that she was endorsing Steyer. Dalhi Myers, a Richland County Council member, last month switched her allegiance from Biden, saying Sanders was better equipped to defeat Trump.

Steyer has vastly outspent Biden and every other candidate in South Carolina, hiring about 100 staffers — more than double Biden’s total — and investing roughly $14 million in television and radio ads as well as $100,000 on ads in black-owned newspapers.

The rich Californian’s spending is yielding support in a few key states, like South Carolina. The long-shot Democrat also shows some ability to connect with voters.

Jan. 22, 2020

Michael Bailey, publisher of the Minority Eye, one of the largest black-owned digital publications in South Carolina, said Steyer has benefited by bypassing elite Washington and state operatives to hire black activists with deep roots in local communities and by advertising in local black media. Steyer has placed more than $27,000 in ads with Bailey’s outlet.

“So now Grandma and Grandpa are seeing Steyer in the newspaper, the millennials are seeing him on websites, and they’re taking a second look: ‘Well, who is this guy?’” Bailey said. “They’re talking about Steyer in the barber shop. They’re talking about Steyer in the beauty salon. They’re talking about Steyer out in the projects, in the ‘hood.”

As Biden campaigned in New Hampshire this week, Steyer took a two-day tour through South Carolina. In Winnsboro, population 3,200, he hosted a block party and served barbecue chicken, burgers and hot dogs to more than 100 residents. He also called for a $22 minimum wage, universal preschool and an end to cash bail and private prisons.

Vicky Goins, a 48-year-old truck driver, said she was undecided about how to vote until she heard Tom Steyer at a block party in her town of Winnsboro, S.C. “It takes a billionaire to beat a billionaire,” she said.
(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

Vicky Goins, 48, a truck driver who was undecided until this week, said Steyer had her vote. “It takes a billionaire to beat a billionaire,” said Goins of Winnsboro.

When asked about Biden, she shrugged.

“Just because he was vice president doesn’t mean I will vote for him,” she said. “It’s all about now: Who can beat Donald Trump?”