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In South Carolina, Joe Biden has strong support from black voters — for now

Former vice president Joe Biden spoke to the crowd in Galivants Ferry, S.C., on Monday.Jason Lee/The Sun News via Associated Press/The Sun News via AP

GALIVANTS FERRY, S.C. — In the sticky South Carolina heat, people peeled boiled peanuts and cooled themselves with paper fans as presidential candidates at this rural campaign stop stepped up, one by one, to a lectern crafted from a wooden tree stump.

Other White House hopefuls were met with polite applause there this week. Joe Biden, by contrast, was ushered in by a high school marching band straight out of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, dancing in purple and gold uniforms as they played their shiny instruments.

As the tubas bellowed, the former vice president took off his aviator shades and grinned out over the 2,500-person crowd from the front porch of the Pee Dee Farms General Store. And from their lawn chairs in the parking lot, many in the crowd grinned back.


“This is my favorite single event in all the campaigns. I’ve been coming here for so long,” Biden said at the Monday event.

“This is my favorite single event in all the campaigns. I’ve been coming here for so long,” Biden said at the Monday event.Sean Rayford/Getty Images/Getty Images

That is a large part of why Biden enjoys such a strong early lead in the polls in South Carolina, which holds a crucial early Democratic primary next February and looms as a potential firewall for his presidential campaign. Biden has been coming for years to this state where familiarity counts. And his status as the former right-hand man to President Barack Obama grants him additional credibility with a Democratic electorate that is two-thirds African-American.

“They feel that they can trust him, and they know he was loyal to the president,” said Doris Potter-Hickman, a member of the state Democrat executive committee who was wearing glittering blue earrings at the event.

So as Biden’s lead shrinks in national polls, as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren rises, and with the race running tighter in Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign is counting on a big victory in South Carolina. The most recent poll shows Biden leading here by 25 percentage points. In Iowa, he leads by just 3 points and in New Hampshire, 8.


“I just think it’s a familiarity with the state’s leaders and voters,” Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston. “How strong is that support? That is of course the $24,000 question.”

But there’s a cautionary tale for Biden here: Hillary Clinton was also polling strongly in South Carolina in 2008. Then voters’ loyalty shifted to Obama after the then-largely unfamiliar candidate won the Iowa caucuses.

“You cannot underestimate the importance of momentum in a presidential campaign,” said Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s campaign that year.

“If he were to lose the first two contests, then things could change fairly rapidly,” said Elleithee, who is now executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service. “The [2008] race shifted dramatically overnight in South Carolina.”

Biden attended a church service at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in July.Demetrius Freeman/New York Times/File 2019

For now, a big part of Biden’s strength here is his strong backing from black voters.

A poll released in August showed Biden had the support of 45 percent of African-Americans, three times as much as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and California Senator Kamala Harris. A CNN poll released last week showed Biden with a similar 42 percent of black support nationwide, with Sanders next at 12 percent and Warren at 10 percent.

Biden began his remarks from the stump here with a shortened version of the speech he gave the night before in Birmingham, Ala., to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church. That attack killed four black girls.


“More than five decades after that horrible day, for all the progress we made, we also have to acknowledge that there can be no realization of the American Dream without grappling — continuing to grapple — with the original sin of slavery,” he said.

The band that Biden’s campaign arranged to play for his entrance was from Wilson High School in Florence, a historically black high school founded in 1866 for freed slaves after the Civil War.

The stump event has run in Galivants Ferry since 1876 but usually takes place in the spring. Organizers this year decided to hold a special presidential edition in the fall. To attend was like stepping into another era. A bluegrass band fiddled as American flags flapped in the breeze. Venders sold sweet tea, chicken bog, and homemade barbecue sauce. Parking was in the pecan grove.

About two-thirds of attendees were white and one-third black. Campaigns, including those of candidates who did not speak, set up booths giving out signs and stickers. Many people affixed blue ones to their shirts that said “JOE.”

“I’m a Barack Obama Democrat supporting Joe Biden,” said Mary Owens, 67, of Conway, S.C. as she ate a fried fish sandwich.

It’s like Obama started building a house, said Bruce Smith, 69, a construction worker from South Conway. “He’s going to finish building it,” Smith said of Biden.


As for the vice president’s infamous gaffes? His supporters didn’t seem to be bothered.

“We like Biden, I just wish we could give him some hints,” said Susan Gordon DeRamus of North Carolina, protected from the sun in a beach chair with an awning. She suggested he spin his odd comment about a record player in the debate last week into a joke about how vinyl has come back into style among young people.

Many said their only objective is to nominate the Democrat who has the best chance of ousting Donald Trump, and they think that is Biden.

“If we go too far left, we’re going to get our butts handed to us on a plate,” said Hope Alexander, 66, of Myrtle Beach.

Biden met with Tyrone Sanders, husband of Mother Emanuel shooting survivor Felicia Sanders (left), in July.Meg Kinnard/Associated Press/Associated Press

That is a different philosophy than that espoused by many people who support Warren and Sanders. Those voters feel it is not enough to simply defeat Trump. They are hungry for the progressive overhauls those candidates tout, such as universal government-backed health insurance and free public college.

Still, things in South Carolina are changing. Many of the local presidential campaigns this year are run by young people of color from the state who are targeting new and younger voters and making more of an effort to reach rural communities.

The 2018 elections saw the highest turnout for a midterm vote in state history, according to South Carolina Democratic Party officials, with the number of black voters up by about 20 percentage points. Nearly two-thirds of all voters were either women or people of color. If that trend continues, more new people will put their votes into ballot boxes across the state a few months from now.


The sun had set over the general store by the time the last of four candidates, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, began to speak from the stump. Tired and sticky voters packed up their chairs even before he finished.

As people streamed toward their cars, Valerie Bannister, 68, of Conway stood with Cheryl Bell, 61, of Myrtle Beach and pondered what they had just witnessed.

“We’re not against Biden. We’re not exactly pro-Biden,” said Bannister, remarking on the large number of young people of color they had seen wearing Bernie Sanders T-shirts.

“It’s not homogeneous,” Bell said of their fellow black voters.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.