“Joe Biden is gonna kick ass here because this is a normal place,” Dick Harpootlian said. “No shit.” A member of the South Carolina State Senate and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, Harpootlian, who has known Biden since the late 1980s, was an early supporter of his third presidential campaign.
“He’s a normal guy,” he said, by way of explanation.
After a long day at the statehouse listening to his fellow lawmakers filibuster, he met me for coffee at Drip on Main Street in Columbia.
“Iowa is like — you watch Game of Thrones?” he asked. I said I didn’t. “Well, that’s too bad,” he said. He took a sip of his latte.
“Iowa’s like the area north of the wall where the White Walkers and the weird people are, okay? I knocked doors out there.” He gestured to his aide. “He knocked doors out there!” he said. “They’re not normal people, okay? And I’ve knocked doors in New Hampshire. They’re worse. If you’re snowed in, like, eight months a year, you’re not gonna be normal, okay?”
He laughed. “By the way, I wonder what the incest rate is in Iowa. I bet it’s high! Really high. Like any part of Appalachia where nobody can get in.”
His aide groaned, letting out an anguished, “Noooooo.” He leaned down to speak into my recorder. “For the record, this is Harpootlian saying this about the incest,” the aide said. Then added, “I’m not.” (Earlier this month, the Biden campaign was forced to distance itself from Harpootlian after the former party chair was accused of making racially insensitive remarks — a characterization he challenged. The Biden campaign said that Harpootlian is not an official representative.)
Harpootlian seemed satisfied with the reaction. “They’re not normal,” he went on. “When I say normal: They’re not like the rest of the country, like, as a group. Biden’s gonna win double digits here. And on Super Tuesday, he’ll do well in the normal states.” (By “normal,” I understood Harpootlian to be referring to demographically diverse states — versus the extremely white state of Iowa and New Hampshire.)
There are no statistics by which to verify Harpootlian’s assumptions about incest rates in states outside of his own, but when it comes to his assumptions about Biden’s performing significantly better in South Carolina, there is much polling that backs him up.
For the entirety of the campaign, Biden has led the field in the state by a wide margin. But in the aftermath of his losses in the abnormal jurisdictions of Iowa and New Hampshire, his numbers here began to suffer, calling into question the wisdom of his campaign’s strategy for success, which depends on South Carolina voters to coolly shrug off what has happened elsewhere when they arrive at the voting booth, delivering him a victory that powers him through Super Tuesday and reconfigures the entire race in his favor.
But as anxieties mount among moderate Democrats and members of the party Establishment about a Sanders nomination, and as the results in Iowa (well, sort of), New Hampshire, and Nevada feel increasingly like old news, Biden’s luck has turned. In the most recent polling, conducted as Biden has campaigned in the state in high spirits, following a solid debate performance and the crucial endorsement of Jim Clyburn, he’s surged to a 12-point lead over Bernie Sanders.
Even Lindsey Graham agrees with Harpootlian’s prediction (about the primary, not the incest). On Fox News Thursday evening, Graham said Biden would emerge from South Carolina with a double-digit victory.
Harpootlian tells two stories about Biden to anybody who will listen. He prefaces both stories by saying that he never tells the stories, and that if Biden knew he was going around telling the stories, he’d kill him.
The first story is about a golf outing when Biden was the vice-president. He was driving the golf cart, and Biden told him to move over. “I never get to drive anything,” Harpootlian recalled Biden saying, “I can’t drive a car. When I play golf with Barack, he drives. I’m driving the cart. Move over.” Harpootlian laughed. “So, I move over, and he drives the cart. Not very well, I might add.”
Later, at lunch, Harpootlian said he apologized to Biden for his bad golf game. “He said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, Dick. Don’t worry about it. You know, I learned a lot today.’ I said, ‘Mr. Vice-President, what could you possibly have learned from me today?’ He said, ‘Oh, five new ways to use the word fuck.’”
A few weeks later, Harpootlian said, Biden had his infamous “big fucking deal” gaffe during Obama’s signing of the Affordable Care Act. When he saw Biden next, Harpootlian said Biden pointed at him and said, “Your fault!”
The next story is about a fundraiser Harpootlian and his wife held for Biden last year, at the beginning of this campaign. His next-door neighbor was suffering from brain cancer, the disease that killed Biden’s oldest son, Beau, and couldn’t attend the event. When Jill Biden heard about this, she left the party to go knock on her door and offer her support, and then returned with the neighbor, who has since died.
“They’re just good people,” Harpootlian said.
Down the street from Drip, a small group of believers busied themselves in Biden campaign headquarters. The space, a house-like structure on Taylor Street, is decorated with handwritten notes and photos of the candidate and his supporters: “He IS the ONE!” “I support Joe because he can win!!!” “I support Joe because he is an experienced leader in policy and politics!”
Signs written with red marker pointed to a phone-banking room. It contained only two volunteers: Victoria Johnson, 34, and Ruth Dixon, 68, both from Columbia. They sat at a table with campaign-issued flip phones and lists of voters before them.
Johnson dialed a number. “Hello, my name is Victoria, and I’m with the Joe Biden for president campaign,” she said, reading off the script. “I’m looking to confirm that you’ll be supporting Joe Biden in this year’s presidential campaign.” She paused a second. “Okay, well, great,” she said. “He’s depending on supporters like you to get out and vote. The primary is Saturday, February 29th.”
She hung up. “This is my first time doing anything like this,” she told me. “I guess I feel very strongly about Joe Biden, to come out and do this.”
Dixon felt the same way. She said she’d never volunteered for a politician before either. “I’m pushing for Joe Biden because I know he knows what he’s doing,” she said.