Is South Carolina still Joe Biden's firewall?

By LaCrai Mitchell, Nicole Sganga

/ CBS News

Can Biden maintain support in South Carolina?

North Charleston, South Carolina — By the time the New Hampshire primary results rolled in, revealing a fifth-place finish and zero delegates for Joe Biden, the former vice president was long gone — over 900 miles away in South Carolina, a place he's maintained would be a linchpin for his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Iowa, too, was a disappointment. Fourth place there had been a "gut punch," he admitted. He predicted he "would take a hit" in New Hampshire days before voters cast their ballots. But after capturing only 8.4% of the vote in New Hampshire, Biden tried to put the best spin on the results, telling about a hundred enthusiastic South Carolinians that "the most committed constituents in the Democratic Party" had not yet voted.

"We just heard from the first two states — two of them. Not the whole nation, not half a nation, not a quarter of the nation. Not 10%. Two," said Biden to group gathered at a local event space in Columbia. "You can't be the Democratic nominee and you can't win the general election as a Democrat unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters."

Joe Biden ›

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  • Biden calls Iowa caucus results a "gut punch"
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Biden has expressed confidence in his support from African-Americans throughout the primary cycle, and he's right, their support is a huge factor in South Carolina, where black voters are expected to make up 60% of the Democratic primary electorate in the coming primary. But an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released Tuesday showed his lead over Bernie Sanders among black voters has shrunk to just three percentage points.

And a Winthrop University survey published Thursday — the first qualifying state poll released ahead of the South Carolina debate — shows that among black voters, Biden has 31%, compared to Steyer (18%) and Sanders (17%), who are virtually tied for third. Twenty-one percent of black voters in the state said they are undecided. Less than two weeks away from South Carolina's primary, Biden is aggressively trying to defend what may be a fragile lead here among this group.

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Dr. Jill Biden addressed voters during a campaign stop in North Charleston, S.C. Monday. Dr. Biden kicked off the second surrogate bus tour that the campaign is hosting in the state this week. Nicole Sganga / CBS News

On Monday, the campaign kicked off a bus tour with Dr. Jill Biden who insists that her husband's "firewall" remains intact and invoked her late son, Beau Biden, in talking about the unique bond she and her husband feel with the state.

"The people of South Carolina know me. They know Joe," said Dr. Biden. "We were here, like I said, after our son Beau died. This is where we came to try and heal. And when there was the mass shooting at the church, we came to that service. I mean, we love the state of South Carolina. The people here are warm. They welcome us into their hearts, and we just love coming here."

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Dr. Jill Biden addressed dozens of voters during a campaign stop in North Charleston, S.C. Monday. Dr. Biden kicked off the campaign's second surrogate bus tour through the state this week. Nicole Sganga / CBS News

A CBS News Analysis shows Biden has spent 16 days in South Carolina since launching his campaign. By comparison, he was in Iowa for 61 days and in New Hampshire for 23 days.

Biden has spent nearly $400,000 on South Carolina television and radio advertisements this month alone, much less than the seven-figure investments made in Iowa and Nevada. This week, Biden's Super PAC, Unite the Country, has invested just under $74,000 total in local radio advertising, according to Kantar Media.

Amid the crowds of voters Dr. Biden addressed, there was a sense that this might be the former vice president's last stand, and some of his supporters here harbor doubts about him.

"I would say I am a Biden supporter, but I'm also very interested in Amy Klobuchar," Scott McBroom said awaiting Dr. Biden in North Charleston. "Frankly, had he run four years ago, I would have been volunteering myself. But what I'm seeing so far concerns me. He's not as sharp as he was four years ago."

Alice Williams has knocked doors for Joe Biden and expressed concerns about his campaign organization. "Most of them said they'd get out and vote for Joe, but some of them said they were not sure." The former Republican and volunteer for John Kasich's 2016 campaign said she found one too many Warren door hangers on houses she visited. "Well, I am worried," she remarked, when asked about disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. "You need a strong organization."

Asked if Biden's "gut punch" in Iowa and New Hampshire gave her pause, Charleston teacher Nikki Sellazzo cocked her head to one side. "I mean, I guess a little bit. You do want to make sure that your vote goes toward someone that is going to win a primary or someone that can beat Donald Trump."

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, showed that in a Biden-Trump match-up, 52% surveyed said they would vote for Biden while 44% said they would vote for Trump — the largest margin of victory among other Democratic rivals.

The 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry, joined the Biden campaign's bus tour in South Carolina this week. Just before the ninth presidential debate began in Las Vegas Wednesday, Kerry told reporters at a Columbia debate watch party that he's not worried about whether South Carolina will be a 'firewall' for Biden.

"It's not something to worry about, it's something to do something about," said Kerry, adding that the relationships Biden has built are strong. "You may not be able to win in an Iowa caucus on the Democratic side, or in New Hampshire, but I think broadly if you look at the nation, Joe Biden still stands as the person who consistently has the ability to beat him. But South Carolinians will make up their minds."

"You see one of the candidates coming in and using advertisement and his money to come in and buy support, but I believe that the African-American community especially knows Joe Biden. He doesn't have to pay any dollar to make sure that we know his record. We know who he is," said Quadri Bell, a 20-year old University of South Carolina student from Manning before fluently listing off Biden's credentials.

Biden supporters like Tomi Greene, who broke down into tears when she spotted Dr. Biden, said Biden's character outweighs his subpar performances in the first two early states. Greene thanked Dr. Biden during the event for grieving with her after the death of her mother, weeks earlier. Calling Biden a "compassionate listener," Greene added, "I'm a believer. He made me a believer."

Before boarding the "Soul of the Nation" surrogate bus, Dr. Biden mentioned these believers in an exchange with reporters. Asked if the South Carolina "firewall" was still intact, she exclaimed "oh god, yes! Yes of course! Yes."

"Didn't you just see?" she asked. "People are enthusiastic about Joe Biden."

First published on February 20, 2020 / 6:50 PM

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