COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joe Biden started his day in Manchester, New Hampshire, passing out Dunkin Donuts to voters at the polling sites. He ended it more than 900 miles away, in Columbia, South Carolina, as if the New Hampshire primary was already a distant memory.
The former vice president didn’t bother hanging around New Hampshire to see how he would do. And the fact that he left the state ― and ditched his own campaign party in New Hampshire ― showed that he knew it wasn’t going to be good. Indeed, the results Tuesday night showed him coming in below the top three, a poor showing for the man who was presumed to be the front-runner.
“They’re losing, so there’s no point of them being there,” said Dalhi Myers, a South Carolina County Council member who had supported Biden but recently switched to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “They are probably going to move to South Carolina to stop the bleeding.”
Biden instead hosted a “South Carolina Launch Party” with his wife, Jill Biden, and campaign co-chair Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.). The refurbished textile factory, just across the street from the University of South Carolina, wasn’t big, but it was crammed with supporters, gospel singers, South Carolina state legislators and the press.
Arriving on stage to chants of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” Biden declared that the Democratic primary had only just started.
So when you hear all these pundits and experts, cable TV talkers, talk about the race, tell them: It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started. Joe Biden
“We’re moving in an especially important phase because, up until now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituents of the Democratic Party, the African American community. And the fastest-growing segment of society, the Latino community. I want y’all to think of a number: 99.9%. That’s the percentage of African American voters who have not yet had a chance to vote in America. One more number? 99.8. That’s the percentage of Latino voters that haven’t had a chance to vote.”
“So when you hear all these pundits and experts, cable TV talkers, talk about the race, tell them: It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started,” he added.
“I’m glad he came here and stopped wasting his time in Iowa and New Hampshire. I’m from central South Carolina. We have more Black people in Sumter than in Iowa,” said Joseph Brown, 50, referring to his city of about 40,000 people.
Biden had downplayed expectations for the New Hampshire primary after his weak showing in the Iowa caucuses last week, where he finished fourth behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), although the final results are still not official. On the debate stage last week, he said he expected to take a “hit” in the first-in-the-nation primary.
His campaign argued that the first four voting states ― Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina ― need to be viewed as a package, especially since Nevada and South Carolina are significantly more diverse than the first two.
Biden polls significantly better with Black voters, and South Carolina ― where African Americans make up a large portion of Democratic Party voters ― is key to his strategy to prove his viability.
But some warn it’s not just bad demographics at play — there have been warning signs in the Biden campaign’s ability to organize in the first two states.
“The contending issue is the quality of the campaign in the first place,” David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, said of Biden’s organizing efforts in Iowa. “There’s some evidence that the Biden campaign is not all that good at it.”
Biden has held a competitive advantage in South Carolina from the start of his campaign for president. His closeness with former President Barack Obama — which he brought up repeatedly Tuesday night, including an anecdote about Obama’s kids being friends with his grandchildren — is big among voters.
And Biden was a frequent visitor even before his presidential bid, often vacationing on Kiawah Island and having a personal relationship with former governor, and President Donald Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley. When Jill Biden took the stage in Columbia, she started with a memory: coming to the state in 2015 to heal from losing their son Beau Biden.
And Joe Biden opened by reminding voters that he loves the state and has a long history there.
“I hope you love me as much as I love you guys,” he said to cheers. “I’ve been coming here a long time. When I die, I want to be reborn in Charleston, actually. I like the low country, you know what I mean?”
“I think Biden is really strong in South Carolina,” said Charles Whetstone, the Calhoun County Democratic Party chair. “It’s his to lose.”
Though, what was once a 36 percentage point lead in the polls is now looking narrower as candidates including Sanders and California billionaire Tom Steyer look to make a bigger play in the state. And voters are noticing that Biden is slipping.
“Biden, he’s not going to make it — he’s backing up. He ain’t going to make it,” said Charlie Tillman, a farmhand in Chester, South Carolina, who is supporting Steyer.
At least one supporter wasn’t bothered by Biden’s decision to skip the New Hampshire election night party: state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro (D). Now, he said, he gets to take his wife out to dinner to thank her for hosting three campaign staffers at their home in the run-up to the primary.
“I’m going to treat my wife as the queen she is with the best meal in Manchester,” he said.