ROCK HILL, S.C. -- It was supposed to be his campaign’s firewall.
For months, former vice president Joe Biden has counted on South Carolina as a sure early win in the Democratic presidential race that would leave no question he was the party’s best choice to take on President Trump. But after lackluster early state performances, sinking national poll numbers, and mediocre debate performances, many people in South Carolina cringe at the notion that its diverse electorate would rescue Biden’s struggling campaign.
“It’s like he’s taking South Carolina for granted,” said Linda Love, 67, who came last week to a phone bank for Biden despite her frustrations. “You cannot treat African-Americans like that. You cannot take us for granted.”
Biden’s campaign no longer calls the state his firewall, now referring to it as a “springboard” to more victories on Super Tuesday, which follows three days after Saturday’s primary here. And Biden was buoyed by his apparent second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses, although he was trounced by the winner, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
“We’re going to win in South Carolina and then Super Tuesday and we are on our way,” Biden told his supporters in Las Vegas Saturday.
He still could pull off a win in South Carolina, where he has consistently led in the polls. But Biden’s status as the unshakable front-runner has slipped and his firewall is showing cracks.
A poll released Sunday by CBS News and YouGov found Biden’s lead in South Carolina down to five percentage points over Sanders, within the margin of error and consistent with recent polls showing a tightening race.
Biden’s 28 percent support is down from 45 percent in the same poll in November. Sanders came in at 23 percent followed by billionaire investor Tom Steyer at 18 percent. The poll found Biden with the most support among Black voters at 35 percent, with Steyer at 24 percent and Sanders at 23 percent. But in November Biden had 54 percent support from Black voters, who make up about 6 in 10 Democratic voters in the state.
Representative Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in South Carolina, said Sunday that he had heard from “a lot of people” that Biden could have performed better in the debates so far and in making a stronger case for his candidacy. But Clyburn still thought Biden would win the state’s Black vote.
“All these candidates will get some African-American votes,” Clyburn told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I do believe, however, that if we were having the election tomorrow, Joe Biden would have more of the vote. How much more I don’t know yet.”
Clyburn plans to announce his endorsement on Wednesday morning after the Democratic debate in Charleston the previous night. If he chooses Biden, that could be a big boost to his chances in South Carolina.
Last week, as Biden campaigned in Nevada, one of his top surrogates, former secretary of state John Kerry, came to this suburb near the North Carolina border to fire up volunteers.
Instead, he met a room full of worry.
“We’re all aware of the polls and the primaries that have occurred in Iowa and New Hampshire. How can this campaign gain momentum within itself?” Kerry was asked by Sally Schimelpfenig 66, of York. “We’re the quiet group. I think we need to make noise.”
“I’m not being quiet … I’m here because I know what you have to do, you have to fight for it,” Kerry responded, pitching Biden as a unifying candidate and the best equipped to win key battleground states in the Midwest.
Then Love piped up, worrying about Trump’s attacks on Biden’s son, Hunter.
“You know Trump is going to attack [Biden] on his son in Ukraine. How do we get past those personal attacks?” she asked Kerry.
Many in the state still believe Biden has a strong chance at victory, if not by the margins he once expected. On the day of the New Hampshire primary, as it became clear he would not perform well, Biden came to Columbia, a sign of how much he is counting on South Carolina.
“Oh, he’s going to win South Carolina, no doubt about it in my mind," said Jim Thompson, chairman of the York County Democratic Party. “Not by 30 points, but I would say 12, 14 points, a significant margin.”
Still, Thompson and others acknowledge the strong organizing power of Sanders in the state and the undeniable presence of Steyer, who has flooded the airwaves with ads. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is not on the South Carolina ballot.
York County, home to about 15 percent of the state’s Democratic voters, is a popular stop for presidential hopefuls. The last time Biden came was in August.
Love said Biden should have visited more often and needs to improve in the polls to make people feel confident about entrusting him with their vote.
Outside urban centers such as Columbia and Charleston and middle-class suburbs including Rock Hill, many of the voters Biden is counting on live in rural areas where people struggle with low wages, underfunded schools, and difficult access to doctors and hospitals.
In Mullins, a small town in rural Marion County, Miko Pickett, 51, said she has watched other campaigns organize while Biden has not. A quarter of Marion County residents live in poverty, one of the highest rates in the state.
“[Biden] assumes he has it locked in and truthfully, he does,” said Pickett, who until recently served on the executive committee of the county Democratic Party. “If nobody else came to Marion County, on Election Day, I guarantee Marion County is going 100 percent for Biden, or 90 percent. But where he’s mistaken is people are showing up. Bernie is here and he is showing up. Tom Steyer is here. I think they’re going to give him a run for his money, and that’s just my county.”
Terri Brigman, 55, likes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Give a woman a chance. We are smart,” she said.
Brigman said people in Mullins initially assumed they would vote for Biden because of his association with former president Barack Obama. But then Trump started to worry them with his accusations about Biden’s son, she said.
“Now they say, ‘Hey, well, Biden is a crook, too,’ ” Brigman said.
Pickett said Sanders’ ground game in Marion County has been the best thanks to one relentless organizer. And his platform makes sense to people here, especially raising the minimum wage, which has been $7.25 in South Carolina for more than a decade.
“Bernie’s message, it resonates with our community,” Pickett said. “Fifteen dollars an hour would change life.”
Nevertheless, the Obama legacy is hard to shake. Brenda Bennett, 65, still believes Biden is a solid bet to beat Trump. She laughs at the idea of Sanders as the nominee.
Bennett, who lives in a neat white trailer home in Mullins, recently retired from a factory where she sealed ready-to-eat meals for the military. Her starting wage was about $7.25 an hour, she said. Eighteen years later, it had risen only to $11.92.
No one has come to knock on her door or left campaign fliers, Bennett said. But she doubts any of the candidates or their staff would understand how hard she has worked to put together a life on meager wages.
“They haven’t been there. You got to be in there on the poverty line,” she said. “Or beneath poverty, they’ll know then. They ain’t touched the surface."