- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2019

Cracks are starting to emerge in Joseph R. Biden’s “firewall” of black voters in South Carolina, the last of the early states where he is still the undisputed front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

Sen. Cory A. Booker, a black Democratic presidential hopeful who has struggled in the state, recently pulled at least two would-be Biden voters away after an event at a church, said Deborah Smith, a Democratic Party leader in Georgetown County, South Carolina.

“I had two different people say, ‘Well, I was going with Biden, but wow, I love Cory Booker,’ ” she recalled.

Voters gush that the New Jersey senator reminds them of former President Barack Obama with his “positive and upbeat” persona and his championing of poor people, she said.

With support for Mr. Biden softening, Ms. Smith said, “There is definitely an opening for other candidates.”

The Biden campaign in recent weeks has played down his prospects in the leadoff nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, saying the truer test of support will come in more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada, as well as southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday.

The strategy could prove to be a double-edged sword, with Democrats recalling then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s supposedly unassailable support in South Carolina among black voters that collapsed when Barack Obama carried Iowa in early 2008.

“Listen, I was here in 2008. I was an Obama volunteer on January 3rd, right after Iowa. He came to South Carolina and this place was on fire because he proved he could win the white vote,” said Melissa Watson, a party leader in Berkeley County who is a South Carolina co-chair for the presidential campaign of Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a black California Democrat.

Black voters have thus far provided Mr. Biden with a rock-solid base of support. That’s crucial in a state like South Carolina, where black voters comprise some 60% of the Democratic primary electorate.

Ms. Watson said Mr. Biden has built up a reservoir of goodwill due to his decades in the public eye, including eight years as vice president under Mr. Obama, the country’s first black president.

“I honestly think African American voters in particular trust Biden. He’s been around a long time — they know what they’re going to get,” she said.

But Ms. Harris, along with candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is trying to make inroads with black voters, are among those who stand to benefit if Mr. Biden continues to shed support.

A recent Monmouth University poll showed Mr. Biden leading in South Carolina with 33% support, Ms. Warren at 16% and Sen. Bernard Sanders at 12%.

Biden takes 52% of the black vote, followed by Ms. Warren’s 26% and Mr. Sanders’ 25%.

But that was a down from July, when he had led among black voters with 62%, followed by Mr. Sanders at 23% and Ms. Warren at 11%.

“Biden is still in a pretty good position in South Carolina, but there are some signs that he might not have a true firewall among black voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “If he does not do well in the earlier contests in February, there may be potential for current preferences to shift here.”

Bertram Johnson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, pointed to former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s emphasis on Florida in the 2008 Republican presidential primary as an example of the potential pitfalls of overlooking earlier contests to focus on more delegate-rich states.

“I think there is an opening, and I think the reason for that is that candidates historically who have been dependent upon states that come later, saying ‘OK, I’m going to dismiss Iowa and New Hampshire because I’m going to win in South Carolina or win in Florida’ or something like that — those strategies don’t seem to pay off,” Mr. Johnson said.

“So yeah, if I were Biden’s group I’d be very cautious about dismissing those earlier contests and focusing it all on South Carolina,” he said.

Mr. Biden says he isn’t writing off Iowa and New Hampshire.

“No, I plan on doing very well in both of those,” he said in a recent interview with MSNBC. “The polls as you know are up and down. I’ve been ahead in Iowa; I’ve been ahead in South Carolina.”

Candidates such as Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are trying to prove their campaigns can attract a sustainable level of support among non-white voters, a demographic Mr. Sanders struggled to attract in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary contest against Mrs. Clinton.

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, said there is an opportunity for such candidates to make inroad among black voters. He, too, pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s supposed “firewall” in 2008 that came crashing down after the Iowa caucuses.

“I think that when it comes to the black community, Obama has very long coattails, and it takes time for candidates with less name ID in communities of color to break through and have their vision for America be heard,” he said. “So I think what we’re seeing is we’re seeing both Sanders and Warren continually rise in the polls with African American voters, with communities of color and I think that we’re going to continue to see that happen throughout the rest of this campaign.”

The sizable 2020 Democratic presidential field also includes Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, both of whom are black. But they, too, have yet to chip away at Mr. Biden’s edge among black voters.

Mr. Booker recently stressed the importance of nominating a candidate who can mobilize black voters.

“I’m not interested in just beating Donald Trump,” he said on ABC’s “The View.” “I want to beat [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. We got to win in North Carolina. We got to win in Georgia. We got to have record African American turnouts to do that.”

He reiterated the point about how Mrs. Clinton’s standing among black voters collapsed in 2008.

“This has got to be a movement election,” he said. “You got to inspire more people to come to the polls than normally do.”

Conservatives have been looking for potential holes in the coalition of Mr. Biden, who many pundits believe would present the toughest general election match-up for President Trump.

A recent breakdown of the racial coalition backing Mr. Biden suggests that he could have difficulty attracting the kind of broad, overarching support Mr. Booker was talking about.

Mr. Biden is in the unique position of attracting support both from black voters and from white voters who harbor higher degrees of racial resentment, according to polling from earlier this year — potentially capping his ability to attract that widespread support.

Among a subgroup of white Democrats who displayed “high” levels of racial resentment, Mr. Biden led the way at 39% and was followed by Ms. Warren at 14% and Mr. Sanders at 10%, according to the survey from the firm WPA Intelligence.

Mr. Biden also had a huge advantage among black voters in the survey, at 43%. Ms. Harris was the next-closest at 11%.

His advantage among black voters will be less pronounced in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where the black population is considerably smaller than in South Carolina.

Mr. Biden slipped to fourth place in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll on Iowa that also showed him essentially even with Ms. Warren on who Democrats were confident could beat Mr. Trump in a general election.

A poor showing in Iowa, even if it’s not fatal to his campaign, could further dent Mr. Biden’s pitch that he’s the most “electable” candidate.

“It’s more fatal to anybody who says electability is my strongest suit,” said Ross Baker, distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “I mean, the electability argument doesn’t survive the first defeat.”

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