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Why Biden’s hand is stronger than you think

Biden greeted patrons at a barber shop in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 27.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Joe Biden started his primary campaign in South Carolina because he was concerned that a serious challenge could embarrass him in occasionally iconoclastic New Hampshire. He needn’t have worried. Biden won even as a write-in candidate, beating Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips 64 percent to 20 percent in the traditional first-in-the-nation primary state.

And on Saturday, he corralled almost all the votes in South Carolina, adding a Palmetto State exclamation point to his Granite State showing.

Biden didn’t just beat his Democratic Party rivals in South Carolina. By collecting more than 96 percent of the vote, he obliterated them. That includes Phillips. Considered the most credible of Biden’s challengers, he attracted only 1.7 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary vote. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he was edged out by kooky self-help guru Marianne Williamson, whose terrorized former campaign staffers have revealed that beneath her gauzy rhetoric about love and happiness lurks an occupational ogre, a boss from hell.

After Saturday’s South Carolina results, we can say with assurance that Biden won’t face a serious primary challenge. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats are bellying up to the bar to celebrate his stranglehold on the Democratic nomination. Among younger Democrats, the 81-year-old incumbent is viewed more as a tablespoon of cod-liver oil than a shot of Jager.

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Only about 4 percent of eligible statewide voters turned out on Saturday, about a fourth of the also lackluster 2020 showing. But given that the 2020 Democratic primary race was highly competitive, it’s difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from that.

To be sure, the Phillips campaign noted that Biden fell short of his 2020 total, when he got 262,336 votes. This year, he clocked in at about 126,000. Still, that’s a slim reed indeed to pry off the pile of rubble that sits atop Phillips’s hopes.

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For his part, the South Carolina Democratic kingmaker, Representative Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement carried the day for Biden in 2020, dismissed the notion that the results showed any ambivalence about Biden among Black voters. Speaking on CNN, the longtime congressman noted that Biden got more than 97 percent of the vote in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which has two historically Black colleges and universities, as well as a community college.

That was his highest percentage in the state and “that demonstrates to me . . . that Joe Biden has not lost any support among African Americans,” Clyburn said.`

After all, as goes Orangeburg, so goes the nation.

Reassurance like that would have more resonance to Democrats if Biden could only start closing the margin-of-error polling gap that separates him from former president Donald Trump in swing states. That said, he has two under-rated assets in his pocket.

The first is the economy. There is now widespread acknowledgment among experts that the Biden team has stuck a soft landing and the economy is going great guns.

Problem: There’s still a large gap between that reality and public perception. In part, that’s because the higher prices that came post-COVID haven’t disappeared. Still, real-dollar income gains are now outstripping inflation, which means actual purchasing power is on the increase. Over the next nine months, that reality should sink in.

The second is the vast array of Trump negatives available for the Biden campaign to exploit. Imagine a flight of TV ads that feature Jan. 6 committee testimony from former Trump attorney general Bill Barr and other top former Department of Justice officials declaring they had repeatedly told Trump there was no significant voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Then imagine the ad dissolving to footage of Trump repeating that lie over and over and over again — and of his MAGA mob taking his falsehood to heart and storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

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For his part, many of Trump’s prominent lines of attack have lost power.

His charge that Biden has ruined the economy has been rendered risible.

He contends that the 81-year-old Biden is deep in his dotage. But of the two, it’s the 77-year-old Trump who now owns the largest and most worrisome senior moment. That is, mistaking Republican primary rival Nikki Haley for former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and asserting that Haley was in charge of Capitol security on Jan. 6.

Another Trump cudgel is his relentless claim that the Southern border is an open-border catastrophe. Although it is not actually open, the heavy flow of migrants remains a potent issue. Yet even as the US Senate has labored away on bipartisan legislation to address the matter, Trump has worked to scuttle the deal. Why? To preserve the border as an election-year issue.

That’s the kind of cynicism most Americans hate.

Which is why a wise poker player would rather have Biden’s cards to play over the campaign’s long haul.

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This column first appeared in The Primary Source, Globe Opinion’s free weekly newsletter about local and national politics. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.