COLUMBIA, S.C. — With an Elizabeth Warren sticker on her shirt, and with a nearby drum line pounding out a welcome for Kamala Harris, Harriett Harris explained why she could settle for Joe Biden.
“We might have to take Papa Joe,” said Harris, 69. “That's like a mini-step, to stop the bleeding, and then whoever his vice presidential person is can rise up. I think he's willing to just go for one term.”
Etta Linen, who had run over to hug Warren when the senator arrived at Jim Clyburn's annual fish fry, said she planned to vote for Warren, while her husband was sticking with Biden. Linen liked Biden, too; she was just more confident that someone other than the former vice president could win.
“Whoever can get Trump out of office, I'm happy,” said Linen, 66, who added that she'd heard about internal Republican polls that showed the president badly trailing in swing states. “If we're going by those polls that were leaked, a good five or six of them can beat Trump.”
South Carolina's frantic political weekend, with candidates causing traffic jams along rope lines and at convention halls, came at a perfect time for Biden. Even before he arrived in the state, members of the Congressional Black Caucus defended him for reminiscing about how he worked with segregationists. By Friday night, when Biden appeared at the fish fry, the controversy had faded; by Saturday afternoon, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was playing down his public (and private) argument with Biden, telling reporters that they didn't need to "bury the hatchet" because "there was no hatchet."
But although no Democrat disputes that Biden is far ahead in South Carolina polls, the weekend revealed just how seriously Democrats are weighing their second choices — and how intensely the other leading candidates are organizing in the state, where about 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is African American.
And Biden's own politicking over the weekend showcased how he intends to hold onto black support, combining frequent reminders of his eight years in the White House with newly adopted (or newly emphasized) policies that shrink the distance between him and his mostly younger rivals.
Joe Biden. His campaign, which is rapidly adding staff in the state, had a smaller presence at the weekend's marquee events than the rival campaigns of Warren, Harris and Booker. It was more than enough to demonstrate Democrats' warm feelings for the former vice president; speaking at the very end of the state convention, Biden was welcomed by a standing ovation.
He used that speech to race through his agenda, including ideas he had not been strongly associated with before — all of them advanced by criminal justice reformers. Biden, who often tells audiences that he doesn't want to take up too much of their time walking through a policy, spent one remarkable minute zooming through his entire plan to rethink prison, law enforcement and the drug war:
Criminal justice reform. There are too many people in prison, too many black men, and I might add, black women in prison. Look, in our administration, we started to address the problem. We reduced federal prisons by 38,000 people. We passed the supportive school initiative, to break the school-to-prison pipeline. But we need to pass Bobby Scott's – Congressman Bobby Scott from Virginia's – Safe Justice Act. I met with him. We've got to add a few things that I'm proposing. No more mandatory minimums, period. End private prisons, which we did in our bill, period. Fund drug courts; no one should be going to jail because they're addicted. They should get rehabilitation. Bail reform. Just because you don't have the money doesn't mean you should be languishing in jail. Ladies and gentlemen: No juveniles in adult prisons. Mandatory, mandatory treatment for people in jail who suffer from addiction. Ladies and gentlemen: Decriminalize marijuana, and immediately expunge the records of people who've been convicted.
Some of those positions were stalled in the Obama years, some had been adopted recently, and some had never been discussed by Biden as a candidate. Some other campaigns were startled by the speech, skeptical that Biden could evolve at the same time that he smacked back any attacks on his career in the Senate.
Bernie Sanders. Since 2016, when his crushing defeat in South Carolina set in motion his eventual primary loss to Hillary Clinton, the senator from Vermont has repeatedly returned to the state (and the larger South) to build ties with black voters. This weekend demonstrated how little ground he'd gained since then, with new endorsers climbing on board after plenty of in-person contact, while Democrats who backed him as a challenger to Hillary Clinton have gotten excited by other candidates.
Arik Bjorn, who ran for Congress in 2016 after being inspired by Sanders, showed up to the convention wearing a shirt that read “No Old White Men 2020" and argued that some new candidates, such as Warren, had credibly adopted the main ideas — universal health care, free college — advanced by Sanders.
“I think Sanders has painted himself into a socialist corner,” Bjorn said. “Now, that happens to be my worldview, but he hasn't presented himself in a way to reach people who aren't as progressive as me.”
Sanders's campaign has worked to accentuate the differences between him and the field by presenting itself as the only real movement to change the party. At the convention, and at a “backyard bash” for supporters that was moved inside Saturday, Sanders began by describing how Third Way, a business-friendly think tank, held a conference in Charleston just days earlier where “corporate” Democrats described him as “an existential threat” to Democratic victory.
“We are an existential threat to the insurance industry, because we are fighting for universal Medicare-for-all!” Sanders told supporters at the bash, which welcomed him with chants of “no middle ground.”
At the moment, this pitch might alienate more Democrats than it attracts. Numerous Democratic voters, when asked about Sanders, said they remained uncomfortable with how long he remained in the 2016 primary against Clinton, a critique the campaign can respond to only by reminding them that Sanders eventually campaigned for her in swing states.
“It was a competitive primary up until the point that wasn't,” said Justin Bamberg, a state legislator who endorsed Sanders in 2016 and backed him early for 2020. “That's how politics works.”
Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. The struggle of the race's two well-known black candidates to break out in South Carolina has begun to confound some local Democrats. “I thought for sure that there would be much more of a surge,” Clyburn told NBC News before the weekend started. “I can't quite figure that out yet.” Each campaign had an elevated presence at the weekend's events; each candidate seemed to underwhelm the fish fry crowd, while rousing the delegates at Saturday's convention.
“We’ve seen past candidates who’ve won South Carolina handily that weren’t polling ahead at this point,” Booker told reporters Saturday morning, a resonant (if overstated) reference to the early skepticism that greeted Barack Obama. “We won’t just do well here; we’ll win here.”
With Sanders locking up some share of left-wing voters, and with Biden revealing how much voters were ready to look past a candidate's flaws if they could credibly challenge Trump, Harris and Booker emphasized their biographies in ways that seemed riskier a few months ago. The criticism that Harris faced from the left for being a prosecutor was less relevant; Harris's convention speech leaned right into her image.
“We need somebody on our stage, when it comes time for the general election, who knows how to recognize a rap sheet when they see it, and prosecute the case,” Harris said.
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke. They entered the weekend on radically different trajectories. Warren has been gaining support; Buttigieg was trying to deal with a police-involved killing in South Bend, Ind.; O'Rourke has become increasingly dismissed as a charismatic politician with no rationale for running.
The weekend did not change their trajectories, but it showed how each candidate's coalition differed. Buttigieg's and O'Rourke's visible support skewed whiter than the support for Biden, but both presented themselves as the closest candidates to the ground. O'Rourke's remarks at every stop were travelogues of the places he had been in South Carolina, such as Denmark, a poor community in a long-running fight over tainted water. (Sanders had also visited the city, recording a campaign video to draw attention to the water crisis.) Buttigieg briefly described how he was trying to help South Bend heal.
“It is as if one member of our family died at the hands of another,” Buttigieg said.
Warren had far more visible support from black voters, especially women; forced by time limits to boil down her stump speech, she emphasized her first career as a special-needs teacher, then led cheers for teachers, which rippled through the crowds.
The rest. With every week, the Democratic field is separating more into two tiers. There are the Campaigns, which have the resources and organizers to compete in key states. And there are the Candidacies, of people who show up to events in early states but can't build real operations until they raise more money or find more organic support. There were groans when John Delaney joked that the crowd had a “long way to go” and more groans when the convention crowd learned, after seven candidate speeches, that a dozen more candidates would be coming to the stage.
(One of them, a man named Robby Wells who has appeared at some state party functions, was given the same time onstage as Biden, Sanders and the rest; he tried, unsuccessfully, to talk his way into the same live TV appearances that the top-tier candidates were getting.)
There are different tiers within this other-guys community, with some investing more in other early states (John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Julián Castro) and some with no real organization beyond what they find when they visit with local activists.
But there has been a palpable decline in the patience of Democratic activists who are asked to meet with, or sit through speeches by, people they have never heard of. As “cattle call” season continues, so does frustration with the candidates who seem to be waiting for a lucky break — especially if they do so by taking swings at people such as Biden, who Democrats are already imagining in the presidency.
"Black voters are cutting Biden some slack — for now,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
Biden's opponents never expected the segregationists gaffe to sink his campaign, but they got their first big case study in goodwill for him this weekend.
It's not just about Biden; many Democrats remain frustrated by anything that looks like party infighting, when any punch should be thrown at the Republicans.
“Black leaders welcome renewed focus on race — stumbles and all,” by Annie Linskey
Whatever worries they have about the primary, activists finally have a race being shaped by their values and questions.
“For a young Elizabeth Warren, ‘a firecracker questioner,’ debate was a ticket to another life,” by Jess Bidgood and Liz Goodwin
A portrait of the candidate as a young Okie.
“Democrats’ grand plan to contain Iran? Just beat Trump,” by Edward-Isaac Dovere
The cancellation of a strike on Iran also delayed a Democratic primary argument.
South Carolina may be the pivotal early primary state in 2020. But it wasn't always — and unless one Democrat really consolidates the black vote next February, it may lose some of its power to shape the race.
The state did not hold a real primary contest until 1976, a time when “Dixiecrats” still dominated the South; segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace won that year's contest. In 1984 and 1988, the state held caucuses, both of them won by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Only in 2004, when South Carolina-born John Edwards beat a poorly organized Al Sharpton, has a black candidate contested South Carolina's primary and lost it.
The modern primary remains, basically, the definitive contest for black voters. In 2008, when black voters made up 55 percent of South Carolina's primary electorate, Obama won 78 percent of their votes. Eight years later, the black vote rose to 61 percent of the primary electorate; Hillary Clinton won 86 percent of that vote. Obama and Clinton won overall by landslides and repeated those performances in every subsequent primary dominated by black voters. Their main opponents were never able to recover.
What's the difference between a small win and a landslide? Even more than it sounds. John Edwards's 2004 win, by double digits over John Kerry (and Sharpton), gave him an 11-delegate lead in the state. Clinton's 2016 win, a three-to-one demolition of Sanders, gave her a 25-delegate lead. It was the start of a weeks-long rout of Sanders with black Southern voters, padding Clinton's lead and making it impossible for Sanders to catch her, even with landslides of his own in most caucus states.
At the moment, Biden is winning black voters in South Carolina, but not by Clinton's margin. Polls have given him at about 50 to 55 percent of the black vote, more than enough to win over a divided field but not enough for a three-to-one delegate victory. To win the nomination, Biden doesn't need to re-create the 2008 Obama coalition; at the moment, he's doing worse than Obama did with white liberals but better with moderates. But if no candidate wins a landslide with black voters, the South's primaries won't decide the nominee again.
COLUMBIA — Before the 2020 Democrats arrived in South Carolina, the Trump administration planned to capture tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in liberal cities and to strike Iran in retaliation for the destruction of a drone.
And by the time the Democrats left the state, none of that had happened.
“People need to see through that and see that this guy is a political con man,” said an exasperated Julián Castro, who described Trump’s strategy with an eight-letter word for animal waste.
The president’s role in the Democratic primary has always been a paradox. Of the candidates leading the polls, only Biden usually responds to Trump’s latest decisions or tweets. Trump’s erratic weekend gave the field the unusual challenge of responding to decisions that could have been momentous but didn’t happen — and to do it without being glib.
“I don’t think he knows what he wants,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, when asked about the scrapped Iran strike.
“This was another bait-and-switch,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked about the delayed ICE raids. “He creates a crisis, and then he says, ‘Oh, let’s solve this crisis! Make a deal with me!’ ”
Trump was not the first president to announce a dramatic display of power, then balk. In 2013, Obama was nearly ready to strike Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians, then balked. Many Republicans jumped at the opportunity to call the president weak. Some, such as Trump, supported Obama’s decision; some, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, supported a strike but thought the president had botched it.
There was none of the same division for the Democrats in South Carolina, who universally said that the president was precipitating crises that they never would. War with Iran wasn’t even debatable; they supported the peace agreement that Trump had torn up.
“I would have never gotten out of the nuclear deal, which is the dumbest thing that’s ever been done,” Biden told a reporter for Vice on the rope line of South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn’s fish fry.
“It's like somebody setting a fire to a basket full of paper and then putting it out,” Sanders told CBS News. “He helped create the crisis and then he stopped the attacks.”
Every Democratic candidate has an easy answer when asked what Trump was doing wrong: Restore the Iran deal. Not for the first time, Trump had taken an issue that might have divided Democrats and found a way to bring them around the campfire. In narrow political terms, that was a problem for the more antiwar Democrats in the race, such as Sanders and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Sanders pointedly used some of his time at the party convention to condemn any “rush to war,” and Gabbard told reporters that Trump was making the world more dangerous.
“Trump’s decisions every step of the way are what has pushed us closer and closer to the brink of war with Iran, a war that would be far more dangerous, costly and devastating than anything we saw with the Iraq War,” Gabbard said. “This began with his withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, it continued with his crippling escalation of sanctions, and it continued with his declaration of Iran's military as a terrorist organization.”
Gabbard was elucidating just some the differences that could emerge if Democrats get deeper into an Iran debate. Would other Democrats threaten Iran with sanctions? Under what conditions would they strike Iran? Was Iran really an enemy of the United States? There was plenty of quicksand if Democrats started walking into that topic; in a CBS News interview conducted around the convention, Kamala Harris was asked to “rank” Iran among America's foreign threats and responded by saying it was on a list of nuclear threats.
“North Korea is of course on that list, and Iran is on that list, and there are others,” she said.
When the weekend was over, there was total clarity about how Democrats would respond to any Trump plans of immigrant raids. They would oppose them. There was slightly less clarity about how a real debate about Iran could unfold. A big, outstanding question ahead of the debates was how the 19 Democrats who had opposed the decision to invade Iraq, and destabilize the Middle East, would deal with the one candidate who had supported it: Joe Biden. On Thursday, both Sanders and Gabbard would share a stage with him.
“It should be one of the top three things discussed, at least,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who appeared at the conference as a surrogate for Sanders. “It gets to a candidate's judgment, to whether we're going to get into more misadventures in the Middle East, and whether we're going to find a way to get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Bernie Sanders. He's heading back on the campaign trail as soon as Thursday's debate is over, with three pre-weekend events in New Hampshire.
Elizabeth Warren. She's holding a town hall meeting in Miami on Tuesday, before the Wednesday debate; she'll head to Chicago after that debate, with an event planned in a venue that can seat nearly 4,000 people.
Jay Inslee. He's heading to the Miami area Monday before the debates to announce a new climate policy.
Steve Bullock. He made his first New Hampshire swing while most of the Democratic field was in South Carolina.
The Democratic primary field, the largest in modern party history, got one more candidate Sunday afternoon: two-term Pennsylvania congressman and retired Adm. Joe Sestak. With no fanfare, without even the speculation that swirled around some other long-shot candidates before their announcements, Sestak relaunched his old campaign website, with information about his unsuccessful 2016 Senate bid replaced by the issues, schedule and rationale for his presidential campaign.
“The president is not the problem; he is the symptom of the problem people see in a system that is not fair and accountable to the people,” Sestak said in video explaining why he was running. “We need a leader who is trusted by the people because he is willing to be accountable to them — above self, above party, above any special interest — no matter the cost to him.”
Sestak, 67, spent most of his career in the Navy; he entered politics in 2006, winning a House seat in Philadelphia's suburbs in that year's Democratic wave. But the last 10 years of his career were defined by a struggle against his party's leadership. In 2009, he announced a Senate bid against then-Sen. Arlen Specter, even though Specter had switched to the Democratic Party. (Specter, who had nearly lost a 2004 primary to now-Sen. Pat Toomey, was widely expected to lose if he remained a Republican.)
Sestak won the primary but lost the general election. Six years later, he ran for the same seat, and the party's leadership coalesced around an alternative: Kathleen McGinty, who was briefly the Democratic governor's chief of staff. Sestak lost, and eventually so did McGinty, but the common thread between 2010 and 2016 is still relevant now: Biden aggressively campaigned for Sestak's opponents both times.
The cutoff to make the next Democratic primary debate is July 16, and no candidate with fewer than 65,000 donations, or less than 1 percent support in three credible polls, will be invited. Chris Baker, who answered some questions on Sestak's behalf, suggested that the new candidate would try to make an impact in other ways.
“What Joe believes is important is reaching the American people with a message that will resonate with them,” Baker said. “We’re going to follow all possible avenues to reach the American public.”
. . . three days until the first Democratic primary debate
. . . 23 days until the cutoff for inclusion in the second Democratic debate