NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Joe Biden is confident he is poised for victory in Saturday's first-in-the-South primary, just weeks after his third presidential campaign left New Hampshire badly wounded and close to broke.
The question is whether Biden is correct that a win in South Carolina would propel him toward a strong showing in the Super Tuesday slate of 14 states days later. Biden's top rivals, Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, have dwarfed him in organization and spending, and early voting had begun in many states, including delegate-rich California and Texas, before Biden’s campaign could reestablish its footing.
In Biden’s ideal, a South Carolina rebound would blunt the momentum of Sanders, the progressive favorite and national delegate leader who topped voting in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, while gutting the case for Bloomberg, a billionaire whose late entry to the race last fall was almost entirely pegged on the idea that Biden would collapse after losing Iowa and New Hampshire.
“If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there will be no stopping us,” Biden declared earlier this week, after getting the coveted endorsement of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American on Capitol Hill and the most influential Democrat in South Carolina.
“We will win the nomination,” Biden continued. “We will win the presidency. And most importantly, we will end the fear that so many people in this country have of a second term for Donald Trump.” On Saturday, Biden insisted he didn't have to win by any particular margin, but he still embraced the obvious: “The bigger you win anywhere, the better bump you get.” And, visiting a precinct in Greenville, he predicted a long primary regardless: “I don’t think it’ll even be over after Super Tuesday. I think it’s going to go on to states that are ones that I feel very good about.”
If he’s right, it would validate the argument Biden laid out from the start: that he, a 77-year-old former vice president with deep ties across the party, was the only candidate positioned to build a coalition across a racially, ethnically and ideologically diverse party — and that such a path didn’t require winning in overwhelmingly white Iowa or New Hampshire.
Just what that would look like over the next few weeks, of course, is much more complicated, and Biden aides and supporters know he’d be heavily dependent on favorable media reaction to South Carolina to amplify his message, given his financial constraints. In a sign of his bullishness, Biden is already scheduled to appear on multiple morning shows the day after the South Carolina primary.
“It’s such a tight turnaround to Super Tuesday,” said Steve Schale, who is running a super PAC supporting Biden.
By the end of Super Tuesday, about 40% of Democrats' convention delegates will have been awarded. More than 600 of the 1,991 required for nomination are up in California and Texas alone.
Both the Biden campaign and the super PAC, Unite the County, have lagged their counterparts in fundraising and spending, even with Biden boasting Saturday that he's been raising about a million dollars a day since Tuesday's debate.
Biden’s campaign announced this week an advertising buy of “six figures” across eight of the 14 Super Tuesday states – a paltry sum when considering the amount of money it takes to reach millions of voters on the airwaves and online. Unite the Country has digital advertising in Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina.
As a comparison, a PAC aligned with Elizabeth Warren has said it will spend $9 million on Super Tuesday. Still, the senator faces an uphill battle to win any statewide races other than her home state of Massachusetts. Bloomberg, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of millions on television advertising and paid organizers. Sanders has spent tens of millions. Biden has paid staff across the Super Tuesday map, but after Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign notably moved dozens of organizers to beef up Nevada and South Carolina, recognizing that they were make or break.
Biden’s advertising footprint overlaps considerably with his travel plans for the compressed Super Tuesday blitz. From Saturday through Tuesday, Biden is scheduled for stops in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and California.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said Bloomberg’s presence in the state is ubiquitous. “I’ve never seen anything like it in Democratic presidential politics here,” he said. Of Sanders, who lost Texas to Clinton four year ago, Hinojosa said he “has a following in Texas.”
But Hinojosa said Biden has “a deep well of goodwill” among Texas Democrats, whom he described as “more moderate than some of the early states.” But he said Biden’s relative absence from the state, both the candidate himself and the airwaves, is noticeable. “We’ll see whether that matters,” Hinojosa said.
The situation is similar in Super Tuesday states like Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma – more moderate Democratic electorates but places where Biden has yet to make a dent and almost certainly would be dependent on a nationalized wave of support hinging off South Carolina.
At the super PAC, Schale said a big South Carolina win for Biden almost certainly would induce major contributors to fill Unite the Country’s coffers. But he said there’s not enough time to turn that into Super Tuesday television advertising. “You can’t buy enough points that quickly to move any numbers,” he said.
If a cash windfall materializes, Schale said, the PAC could ramp up the Super Tuesday digital plan it already has in place, but otherwise would buy TV time in states with March 10 primaries. Schale noted that the PAC was able to quickly add to its effort in South Carolina after Clyburn’s endorsements, targeting direct mail pieces and online advertising to African American voters.
Biden is attempting to replicate Clyburn’s reach with an avalanche of elected leaders across Super Tuesday states, from white moderates like Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine to black and Latino members of Congress like Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams of North Carolina and Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas.
Many of those representatives hail from districts with a high concentration of delegates, a nod to the possibility that the nominating fight could be a long one.
“Joe Biden has been there for us when we needed him,” Butterfield said, explaining his message to his constituents in North Carolina. “Now we need his steady hand.”
Still, the money crunch hampers Biden’s ability to reach voters who might just be tuning in. So even as he’s sharpened new arguments -- blasting Sanders for once opposing many Democratic-backed gun regulations or highlighting his relationship with President Barack Obama – he’s left to make the case in campaign events, dependent on traditional media to circulate his arguments.
The former vice president’s aides, meanwhile, argue that he is uniquely positioned to get maximum support with minimum paid media. There is some evidence to support their optimism. Biden has been vastly outspent in South Carolina already by Sanders and another billionaire, Tom Steyer. Schale acknowledged the threat that two billionaires, Steyer in South Carolina and Bloomberg on Super Tuesday, help further divide the non-Sanders vote and open the possibility that even a strengthened Biden will watch Sanders pile up delegates despite getting nowhere close to a majority of votes in many states.
“Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg are walking super PACs for Bernie Sanders,” Schale said. “But it’s a long game.”
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