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Who Could Breach Joe Biden’s ‘Firewall’ in South Carolina?

Billionaire Tom Steyer woos South Carolinians in person as well as on the airwaves. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

One of the bedrock certainties of the run-up to the early-state phase of the 2020 Democratic nominating contest has been Joe Biden’s grip on the South Carolina primary, to be held on February 29, the last battle before Super Tuesday on March 3. The former veep has led in all 22 polls of the Palmetto State in the RealClearPolitics database, mostly because of his strength among African-American voters, who are expected to represent a solid majority of the primary electorate there. South Carolina has thus represented a “firewall” for Biden even if he struggles in earlier states — most notably in Iowa, where he just finished a poor fourth unless stranger irregularities than we thought have afflicted the results of the caucuses. As the contest moves on to New Hampshire, he’s already slipping into third place behind Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in the most recent polls. And his inability to turn out the vote in Iowa doesn’t auger well for his performance in the next caucus state, Nevada.

But even before the Iowa debacle, other candidates were gnawing away at Biden’s lead in South Carolina. One of them, Tom Steyer, was concentrating his vast resources on the state and focusing on the very voters on whom Biden depends, as the New York Times reported recently:

While leading Democratic presidential candidates make a last-minute push in Iowa and Michael R. Bloomberg looks ahead to Super Tuesday, Tom Steyer has his eye on a different prize: South Carolina. And he’s spending millions of dollars to court the black voters who are crucial to success in the state.

Mr. Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire from California, is tapping into his vast wealth to lavish money on black businesses, hire dozens of African-American staff members, and spend generously with black-owned news organizations.

It’s part of a campaign buying blitz that has put South Carolina awash in Steyer money as he also blankets the state with millions in advertisements and mailings, making him nearly omnipresent in the state while other campaigns have barely begun to invest financially.

As of late January, Steyer had spent $14 million on broadcast-TV ads in the state and was putting an estimated $200,000 a week into Facebook ads targeting South Carolinians, along with millions of dollars worth of direct mail. The billionaire has also held more events in the state than Biden or anyone else still in the race. And it seems to be paying off in the polls: He’s in a solid third place in South Carolina, not far behind Sanders. The most recent survey, from the Post and Courier, shows him five points behind Sanders and just seven behind Biden. Perhaps just as important, he’s catching up with the local front-runner among African-Americans, with 24 percent in that demographic as opposed to 30 percent for Biden and only 16 percent for Sanders and 10 percent for Elizabeth Warren. If Biden continues to struggle in the weeks ahead, Steyer (and, for that matter, Sanders) could make crucial gains.

But Steyer isn’t the only political vulture circling Biden’s suddenly ripe carcass: A candidate who is barely a blip on the national political screen, Deval Patrick, has begun refocusing his late-starting campaign from New Hampshire to South Carolina, as Politico reports:

Joe Biden called his fourth-place finish in Iowa a “gut punch” here on Wednesday. For Deval Patrick, it just might be an opportunity …

Patrick supporters say South Carolina, a southern state whose Democratic primary is dominated by black voters, is where the former Massachusetts governor could make an unlikely splash after months of trying to jump-start his late, long-shot presidential bid.

A pro-Patrick super-PAC, Reason to Believe, has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into South Carolina media markets in recent weeks, with an emphasis on black radio …

Reason to Believe has reserved well over $600,000 in airtime in South Carolina — $253,000 in Charleston, $246,000 in Columbia and $186,000 in Greenville, and more cash is on the way, according to a supporter of the super PAC who declined to be named — but predicted that Patrick would finish first or second in the state, which votes Feb. 29.

It’s by no means clear that Patrick can succeed where Kamala Harris and Cory Booker failed among the southern black voters for whom South Carolina is the leading edge. But if Biden begins to melt down in a real and visible way, his perceived electability will undoubtedly suffer, and if Patrick can find ways to let it be known that he is Barack Obama’s best friend in the field, he could make some progress. And if Biden ultimately faces a hard-charging, triumphant Sanders, a money-is-no-object Steyer, and an interesting new face in Patrick — not to mention a potentially stronger Buttigieg effort and perhaps a final drive for survival by Warren — his firewall could melt.

Who Could Breach Joe Biden’s ‘Firewall’ in South Carolina?