Joe Biden gets key South Carolina endorsement in homestretch before primary

James Clyburn and Joe Biden
Joe Biden looks on as House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina announces his endorsement of the former vice president Wednesday in North Charleston, S.C.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up the endorsement of a towering figure in South Carolina’s African American political establishment Wednesday, giving him a crucial boost in the wake of a contentious candidate debate and as his rivals vied with him for support among black voters.

Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in the House, had been widely expected to back Biden but withheld his announcement until after Tuesday’s debate in Charleston.

“I want the public to know that I’m voting for Joe Biden. South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden,” Clyburn, a longtime ally of the former vice president, said in an emotional statement. “This country is at an inflection point. It is time for us to restore this country’s dignity — this country’s respect.”


Saturday’s primary is a must-win contest for Biden after his weak showings in the first three states to vote in Democrats’ presidential nominating contest. African Americans, who make up two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, are central to Biden’s electoral strategy. But their support has been eroding, and it would have been devastating had Clyburn defied expectations and not endorsed him.

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Clyburn’s backing also gives him access to one of the state’s most powerful political machines, an especially valuable asset for a campaign like Biden’s that has been struggling for resources.

“The fact that Jim Clyburn has a get-out-the-vote operation across this state is huge. We’re talking about precinct captains, we’re talking about poll managers,” said Marlon Kimpson, a South Carolina state senator backing Biden. “The endorsement of Jim Clyburn puts a ground game second to none” at work for Biden, he said.

Accepting Clyburn’s endorsement, Biden combined a plea to South Carolina voters with a touch of bravado: “If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there’ll be no stopping us. We’ll win the nomination; we’ll win the presidency.”

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks as the Rev. Al Sharpton looks on Wednesday at a breakfast in North Charleston, S.C.
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks at the faith leaders’ breakfast hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on Wednesday in North Charleston, S.C.
(Getty Images)

Polls show that billionaire Tom Steyer’s concerted, self-funded effort to reach out to black voters in South Carolina has taken a toll. And as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has surged to front-runner status nationally, he has stepped up his efforts to contest the state, long regarded as a gimme for Biden.

While many South Carolina polls showed the race tightening, the latest, released Wednesday by Clemson University, was an encouraging snapshot for Biden: He was favored by 35% of likely Democratic voters, double the 17% that favored Steyer. Sanders drew 13%; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were tied at 8%.

The importance of black voters in South Carolina was spotlighted during Tuesday’s debate, which included a more extensive discussion of racial injustice than in past debates — even though all seven candidates on the stage were white.


Six of the seven candidates — all but former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is not on the South Carolina primary ballot — spoke Wednesday morning at a breakfast event hosted by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. They made a wide variety of pitches to the African American audience that included many faith leaders.

Sanders, introduced by Sharpton as the surprising front-runner of the field, reminded the audience he backed the presidential bid of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988 and told voters not be deterred by attacks on him because he is a democratic socialist. He quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”

Buttigieg, who has struggled to gain traction among black voters and taken heat for strained race relations in his hometown, made a blunt acknowledgment of the gap between his experience and that of minorities facing institutional racism.

“The most important thing was to acknowledge the experiences that I don’t have,” he said. “I was particularly humbled to be aware that last night there was a discussion of racial justice among seven white candidates.”

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Buttigieg won the endorsement of the State newspaper, in Columbia, the state capital, this week. The paper said the former mayor’s “message of unity is an inspiring and empowering one.”

At the Sharpton event, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has taken heat from African American critics for some of her record as a prosecutor, tried to portray that experience as a strength.

“Yes, I’m a former prosecutor,” she said. “I think actually having someone that knows the system, the bad parts, the good parts, what needs to be changed… I think that makes a difference.”

Warren reminisced about her time as a Sunday school teacher and quoted Scripture. And she introduced her Massachusetts pastor, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, who was in the audience. “If you think I do all right in the debates, it’s because Rev. Culpepper prays for me before I go out,” she joked.

Steyer, who’s made South Carolina the central focus of his long-shot campaign, repurposed his debate-stage effort to portray himself as an alternative to Sanders and Bloomberg, the latter a former Republican who as mayor supported aggressive police tactics that had a racially discriminatory impact.

“We don’t have to go with a socialist who thinks the government has to take over the parts of the economy,” Steyer said at the breakfast. “We don’t have to go with a Republican who did stop and frisk.”

Biden spent most of his time heaping praise on Clyburn, the No. 3 leader of the House who would shortly be endorsing him in another venue. But he ended on what sounded like a valedictory note.

“Whether I’m president or not, I’m going to be there to help you do the work no matter what,” Biden said to Clyburn. “You better hope I don’t win because you are going to be the busiest man in the world.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren appears with musician John Legend at a rally at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Wednesday.
(Getty Images)

Later in the day, Warren appeared with singer John Legend at a rally on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black school. The senator drew the event’s loudest cheers with her promises to forgive student loan debt and invest $50 billion in historically black colleges and universities.

Sanders attended a busy late morning rally in North Charleston and then darted up the coast to Myrtle Beach, where the campaign reported some 2800 people turned out to hear him. The Vermont senator will also campaign in South Carolina on Thursday and Friday.

Times staff writers Tyrone Beason and Evan Halper contributed to this report from South Carolina.

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