Biden came in fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. No candidate who performed so poorly in the first two states has gone on to become the Democratic nominee. His message going forward so far is that drawing conclusions about the end of his campaign silences black voters — arguably the most influential voting bloc in the Democratic Party.
“We’re moving into an especially important phase because up until now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party — the African American community — and the fastest-growing segment of the society — the Latino community,” he said Tuesday at a rally. “So when you hear all the pundits and experts and cable TV talkers talk about the race, tell them, ‘It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started.’”
On a conference all with reporters Wednesday, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), Biden’s campaign co-chairman, argued that the momentum some candidates are experiencing won’t carry them through to Nevada and South Carolina.
“I wouldn’t trade positions with anybody else in the race,” said Richmond, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Let’s imagine if the states were in the reverse order. . . . This whole conversation would be different. So I don’t believe that the momentum here relates and carries forward, because we’re in different states, different demographics.”
It is true that Biden polls better than anyone with black voters, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who won New Hampshire and finished with the second-most delegates in Iowa. Since shortly after entering the presidential contest, Biden has held a significant lead with black voters over other candidates.
But the lead has shrunk — to less than 10 percentage points, according to the most recent national Quinnipiac poll released before Iowa and New Hampshire. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has invested heavily in television ads in South Carolina, giving another option to black voters looking to back a moderate candidate whom they believe can take on Trump. As a result, Bloomberg is trailing Biden with black voters by only five points.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was largely unfamiliar to black voters before launching her campaign, has struggled to receive even 10 percent of black voters’ support. And despite Pete Buttigieg’s top performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor has struggled to get significant support from black voters after a string of reports that he responded poorly to multiple issues between his black residents and the city’s police department.
A decrease in black support for Biden could work out for Sanders. Or it could work out for other opponents. Bloomberg is spending millions on advertisements in South Carolina. One of them features then-President Barack Obama speaking highly of Bloomberg, and they appear to be effective.
But following strong performances in two states, Sanders’s team hopes to close the gap between himself and the former vice president. And it is possible — especially if Biden also performs poorly in Nevada.
Headlines about three poor finishes could lead some black voters eager to attach themselves to the person best equipped to defeat Trump to believe that Biden is not as electable as they once believed. Despite perhaps being further to left on economic issues, some black voters believe that the candidate most likely to defeat Trump is one who can attract some of the white voters who backed the president in 2016.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a political education and mobilization group focused on the South, told The Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams last year that even though they want more diverse representation in political positions, some black voters’ ideas about electability default to white men.
“Regardless of how progressive-leaning we are on policy, we see over and over again that we think of political leadership in this very narrow context of white males,” Brown said. “Consciously and unconsciously we go back to that default position.”
Focusing on voters who believe he is the most electable, Biden left New Hampshire before the primary results even came in and headed for South Carolina — perhaps to encourage voters there to show up for him in numbers large enough to keep him competitive.
If Biden is just getting started, he might have to put in quite a bit of work to keep his supporters from fleeing to Sanders, whose team is claiming his is the new front-runner. Iowa and New Hampshire are not definitive contests, but they are not meaningless. Political history shows that it was Obama’s strong finish in Iowa in 2008 that led some black voters in South Carolina to abandon Hillary Clinton and begin supporting the young senator. This showed that the candidate leading with black voters in South Carolina is capable of losing that lead based on what happens in previous races.
Biden is trying to project optimism that his efforts to remind black South Carolinians that he is still best able to defeat Trump will be effective. Biden launched his campaign attacking the president’s record on race relations. And that framing of Trump, who most black people believe is racist, still has power in a state like South Carolina — although how much power is yet to be seen. But with the Sanders campaign buoyed by the first two contests and Bloomberg still well-resourced, South Carolina will test whether Biden’s claims of a long-standing relationship with black voters are enough to take that relationship all the way to November.