Will the black vote save Bi­den?

African Amer­i­cans in South Carolina may not be the elec­toral firewall his flag­ging cam­paign hopes for.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenny Jarvie

COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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.

“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 fa­vorite 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.

Bi­den, who is fac­ing more ri­vals, led in a non­par­ti­san Charleston Post and Courier/Change Re­search poll last month with sup­port from just 30% of black Democrats. 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 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 ref lect the na­tion’s di­ver­sity.

“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, 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 former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, 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.

“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 R. 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. Jen­nings ini­tially sup­ported Cory Booker, the African Amer­i­can se­na­tor from New Jersey who has 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.

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

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?”

Robert F. Bukaty As­so­ci­ated Press

Sean Rayford Getty Im­ages

JOE BI­DEN jet­ted to Columbia, S.C., to cam­paign on Tues­day af­ter poor pri­mary re­turns in New Hamp­shire.

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