For Joe Biden, South Carolina is the key to 2020 nomination

Full Screen
1 / 3

Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during a campaign stop, Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019 at the Small Grand Things venue in West Point, Iowa. (John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye via AP)

The spotlight of presidential primary politics shines brightest on Iowa and New Hampshire. But for Joe Biden, there's an even more important venue in the opening weeks of Democrats' 2020 nominating fight: South Carolina.

Biden returns this weekend to the South's first primary state. It's the last among Democrats' first four nominating contests in February, but the first opportunity for the former vice president to prove his reach across the racial, ideological and geographic factions that make up the Democratic Party — provided he can get through Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada with his campaign still intact.

"When you get to states like South Carolina that actually look like the country, that is where I think the strength of a Biden candidacy is and will finally be reflected," Biden's campaign manager Greg Schultz said this week ahead of the candidate's latest South Carolina visit.

Biden's two-day swing is his sixth visit to the state as a 2020 candidate, and he often calls longtime supporters by name at his events and recalls "my old friend Fritz" Hollings, the state's former governor and decadeslong U.S. senator whom Biden eulogized in April.

Though polling suggests Biden has slipped some in South Carolina since his campaign launch, he still maintains a comfortable lead over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others in the state, including a considerable advantage among black voters expected to make up as much as two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate. Those dynamics stand in contrast to polling jumbles of Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders reflected in the other early states.

Biden aides insist that a broad coalition — significant support from older black voters, Latinos and white moderates, with enough votes elsewhere — still eludes all other Democratic contenders. That includes Warren, whose climb in national and early state polls positions her as a front-runner alongside Biden largely on the strength of her support from white liberals.

Delivering big in South Carolina, the Biden team believes, would create a cascade in similarly diverse states on Super Tuesday less than a week later, potentially giving Biden an early delegate lead.

Yet that strategy would be tested if Biden underperforms in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two February contests. A poor showing there would force him to spend weeks leading into Nevada and then South Carolina facing questions about his overall strength and reassuring supporters.