NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – Joe Biden is confident that 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 Bidenâ€™s campaign could reestablish its footing.
In Bidenâ€™s ideal, a South Carolina rebound would blunt the momentum of Sanders, the progressive favorite and national delegate leader who led 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.
â€œIf you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there will be no stopping us,â€ 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.
â€œWe will win the nomination,â€ Biden continued. â€œWe 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.â€
If heâ€™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 didnâ€™t require winning in overwhelmingly white Iowa or Nevada.
Just what that would look like over the next few weeks, of course, is much more complicated, and Biden aides and supporters know heâ€™d be heavily dependent on favorable media reaction to South Carolina to amplify his message, given his financial constraints.
â€œItâ€™s such a tight turnaround to Super Tuesday,â€ 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 that he managed his single-day best $1.2 million haul this week after a solid debate performance Tuesday.
Bidenâ€™s campaign announced this week an advertising buy of â€œsix figuresâ€ across eight of the 14 Super Tuesday states â€“ 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 advertising, even as 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 on advertising and organizing. 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 for Biden.
Bidenâ€™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 Bloombergâ€™s presence in the state is ubiquitous. â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything like it in Democratic presidential politics here,â€ he said. Of Sanders, who lost Texas to Clinton four year ago, Hinojosa said he â€œhas a following in Texas.â€
But Hinojosa said Biden has â€œa deep well of goodwillâ€ among Texas Democrats, whom he described as â€œmore moderate than some of the early states.â€ But he said Bidenâ€™s relative absence from the state, both the candidate himself and the airwaves, is noticeable. â€œWeâ€™ll see whether that matters,â€ Hinojosa said.
The situation is similar in Super Tuesday states like Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma â€“ 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 Countryâ€™s coffers. But he said thereâ€™s simply not enough time to turn that into Super Tuesday television advertising. â€œYou canâ€™t buy enough points that quickly to move any numbers,â€ 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 Clyburnâ€™s endorsements, targeting direct mail pieces and online advertising to African American voters.
Biden is attempting to replicate Clyburnâ€™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.
The campaign notes that many of the black and Hispanic members represent districts with a high concentration of delegates, a nod to the possibility that the nominating fight could be a long one.
â€œJoe Biden has been there for us when we needed him,â€ Butterfield said, explaining his message to his constituents in North Carolina. â€œNow we need his steady hand.â€
Still, the money crunch hampers Bidenâ€™s ability to reach voters who might just be tuning in. So even as heâ€™s sharpened new arguments — blasting Sanders for once opposing many Democratic-backed gun regulations or highlighting his relationship with President Barack Obama â€“ heâ€™s left to make the case in campaign events, dependent on traditional media to circulate his arguments.
The former vice presidentâ€™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.
â€œTom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg are walking super PACs for Bernie Sanders,â€ Schale said. â€œBut itâ€™s a long game.â€
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