Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary on Saturday in what many saw as a foregone conclusion, including Joe Biden himself. Not even an 0-for-3 start shook his confidence: “I’m going to win South Carolina,” he declared at the Democratic debate on Tuesday. Polling affirmed his bravado. Even as his nationwide numbers have declined, the former vice-president has led by commanding margins in the Palmetto State almost the whole time he’s been in the race. Now he hopes to use his first 2020 victory to reverse the fortunes of his flagging campaign. Winning South Carolina, Biden feels, is a rebirth of sorts, his springboard to an eventual Democratic nomination.
Others should be less certain. It speaks poorly of Biden’s case for electability that the state he’s marked, opportunistically, as the actual start of his campaign is one where he’s rarely had his dominance challenged. His margin for error was always wide in South Carolina, not to mention resilient. He’s fumbled in debates, rambled through public addresses, once eulogized the state’s most infamous homegrown segregationist U.S. senator, and otherwise done little to support the perception that he’s especially well positioned to capture the coveted white working-class voters who’ve rallied behind Trump — pluralities of whom backed candidates not named Biden in every primary before South Carolina’s.
Yet the same themes keep emerging whenever reporters ask black South Carolinians, who comprise the majority of the state’s Democratic electorate, why their support for him has been so durable: With Biden, they know what they’re getting. “Black people are rightfully suspicious of things they don’t know, so that’s why name recognition becomes critical,” organizer and Elizabeth Warren surrogate Leslie Mac told Politico in January. “[People] don’t know Elizabeth Warren,” added Antonio Robinson, a 42-year-old who works in education. Julius Stephens, 74, told Politico that he likes what Warren and Bernie Sanders stand for, but thinks that Americans “would never vote for a woman and a liberal that’s been branded a socialist.”
These are objections borne primarily of doubt and uncertainty, not philosophical disagreement. And while they cannot be taken to represent the views of all black South Carolinians — a cohort whose support for Biden and Bernie Sanders, for example, is split by age, with more young voters backing the Vermont senator — the reticence they convey is typical of how black voters have long been required to consider their political choices. The costs of racist demagoguery in South Carolina have long been the steepest for black people; the legacies of the lynching era, Jim Crow, and an ongoing mass incarceration crisis all attest to this. For a population with such a rich history of supporting Democrats since the parties realigned in the 20th century — and facing a Republican president who exhibits many of the same ideological and temperamental traits they’ve come to associate with all manner of racist violence — Biden’s recognizability was the likeliest channel for their partisanship and survivalist risk aversion, especially in such a cluttered field.
The former vice-president has done everything he can to capitalize on this. He invokes his relationship with Barack Obama regularly to suggest that he’s a natural extension of the former president’s legacy. There are plenty of grounds on which to dispute this. Jesse Jackson recently described Biden as Obama’s “right wing,” a characterization affirmed by my colleague Ed Kilgore’s assessment of why the former vice-president was tapped as his running mate in the first place: to balance out Obama’s blackness and — perhaps most crucially — preempt the possibility of tension derived from having a VP with their own presidential ambitions. (Biden was, erroneously, viewed as too old to want to run for president after Obama eventually left office.)
This makes Biden’s pitch as Obama’s heir apparent especially dubious. But as the former vice-president is no doubt aware, the association still dovetails nicely with a South Carolina victory: The state is widely considered a barometer for a candidate’s clout with black voters, the party’s base, owing in large part to how Obama’s 2008 primary win there was a launchpad for his eventual nomination. Indeed, Biden’s high polling numbers with black voters have been a key talking point for him. And although no Democratic candidate in 2020 has been shy about playing up their relationship to Obama, Biden has been especially reliant on the imprimatur implied by having served in his administration — especially for a candidate with such a long career in politics to draw from.
Never mind that the former vice-president’s constant invocations of the past suggest a willful delusion about what the future holds. Any interest he might show in fighting oligarchy or inequality is undermined by his promises to billionaires that “no one’s standard of living would change” should he assume office. His vows to usher in an era of bipartisan cooperation in Congress show a profound naïveté about the depths of obstruction to which Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party are willing to stoop. Even as fancying himself an avatar for a glorified past has proven to be Biden’s greatest rhetorical asset, his incomprehension of the economic ruin that past heaped on so many poor and working-class people — and the roiling racial conflict it helped surface, spurred by white anxiety over what many saw as declining social dominance — is enough to sour any call to “restore the soul of America.”
Biden may be a known quantity among risk-averse black South Carolinians. But a return to the politics that he’s calling for is its own danger — of a sort whose potential outcomes demonstrably include the rise of a leader like Trump. That fear of the alternative, Trump’s reelection, seems to have driven so many toward the familiar should not be mistaken to mean that the familiar is safe. Rather, it suggests another calculation at work. There’s a yawning chasm between black people’s recognition that we deserve better from the political order and our belief that elected officials will deliver it. More likely than not, Biden didn’t win South Carolina because he built the best case for himself. He won because black people have seen what it looks like when he fails them. Saturday was not a glowing endorsement of his candidacy. If anything, it was a concession to a politics of fear.