vision 2020

Carolina Kingmaker Clyburn to Give Biden a Timely Boost

House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses (ultimately by a more comfortable margin than the initial returns and entrance polls suggested) kept his candidacy off life support and gave him one last chance in South Carolina to get back on his feet as a serious contender. The Palmetto State, with its heavily African-American primary electorate, was long viewed as the former veep’s “firewall” state. And now locked into a tense battle there with national front-runner Bernie Sanders and local spendthrift Tom Steyer, Biden is reportedly about to get a big boost from an endorsement by the state’s most prominent Democratic (and African-American) elected official, Representative Jim Clyburn, per Politico:

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who wields enormous influence in his home state of South Carolina, is planning to endorse Joe Biden on Wednesday, multiple sources with knowledge of the Democrat’s plans told POLITICO.

The planned endorsement is expected three days ahead of the state’s Saturday primary, giving Biden an important boost in a state that will likely determine the fate of his candidacy. Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in Congress, has long been close with Biden and has been open about his affinity for the former vice president during the Democratic primary.

The timing for Biden is probably ideal. South Carolina has no in-person early voting or no-excuse-necessary absentee ballots, so what you see on primary day is what you get. And Clyburn’s support can make a difference, as it likely did for John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Clyburn more or less tipped his hand in a couple of Sunday show appearances, saying he’d issue an endorsement on Wednesday without disclosing its beneficiary (he apparently promised the Democratic National Committee to hold off on a formal endorsement until after its candidate debate in Charleston on Tuesday). He defended Bernie Sanders as someone whose heart is in the right place, but questioned his suitability for voters in places like South Carolina. On Meet the Press, Clyburn said, “Anybody who refers himself as democratic socialist” has always faced “really dire consequences throughout South Carolina.” Unless I’m forgetting some unlikely foray into the Jim Crow South by Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas back in the day, the only self-described “democratic socialist” who has campaign in the Palmetto State was Sanders himself in 2016. And his performance was in fact “dire”; Hillary Clinton trounced him by a 74/26 margin, and exit polls showed her beating him among African-Americans 86/14.

In this cycle, compared to 2016, Sanders has much improved his relative performance among minority voters even as his overall percentages have declined sharply (at least prior to Nevada). The most recent poll of South Carolina (a CBS/You Gov tracking poll of likely voters) shows Biden with 28 percent, Sanders with 23 percent, and Steyer (who has invested enormously in ads and staff in the state) with 18 percent; Elizabeth Warren is a distant fourth at 12 percent and then Pete Buttigieg, who has made a major and decidedly unsuccessful effort to win over black voters, is at 10 percent. Among African-Americans, Biden has lost the overwhelming margin he once enjoyed, though he still leads with 35 percent, with Steyer (who has obsessively targeted the black vote) at 24 percent and Sanders at 23 percent.

Sanders will obviously enjoy some momentum from Nevada, and in South Carolina, as elsewhere, his African-American support is to a considerable extent a byproduct of his very high levels of support among younger voters. It is older black voters who are most likely to pay attention to what Clyburn — who has earned considerable credit for positioning his state’s primary as a privileged early contest in the first place — has to say. And whether or not he is perceived as disrespecting Sanders, his endorsement of Biden could help keep the former veep from further defections to Steyer.

The Charleston debate, of course, could produce fireworks overshadowing anyone’s endorsements, though, as in Nevada, much of the drama could involve Mike Bloomberg, who’s not even on the ballot in South Carolina. But Clyburn will give Biden a decent shot at keeping just enough of his once-prized coalition of older minority and white moderate voters together to earn a win Uncle Joe has to have.

Carolina Kingmaker Clyburn to Give Biden a Timely Boost