Joe Biden has hit his stride. After a stumbling start to the Democratic presidential contest, the former Vice President is heading into Saturday’s South Carolina primary loose, scrappy and running in front. Polls show him ahead, fundraising is suddenly coming easily, and his crowds are matching those of his rivals. The difference is showing in Biden himself. He is enjoying the day-to-day grind of a campaign and has shed worries that he would disappoint his longtime advisers and family.
Watching him on the ground here in first-in-the-South contest, two questions jump out: What changed? And is it too late?
Biden’s rebound wasn’t plotted on conference calls or in focus groups. Most of the turnaround has taken place in his head. He is on familiar ground, both physically and politically. He has spent so much time in South Carolina over the years, aides don’t need to tell him the distance to the next stop. That familiarity has led Biden to relax and stop fretting about the tiny details of his performances. Last year, for example, complaints about his non-sexual physicality were a dull hum in the back of his mind every time someone approached for an embrace. By the time entertainer Vivica A. Fox went in for a hug on stage here in Conway, S.C., on Thursday evening, Biden just went for it and held her close.
But time is short. Absent a convincing win Saturday in South Carolina, Biden limps into the March 3 contests on Super Tuesday still struggling to look like his party’s leader. Last weekend’s second-place finish in Nevada’s caucuses followed a fourth in Iowa and a fifth in New Hampshire. Even a victory here would leave mere days to translate momentum into Super Tuesday’s races. Having gone all-in for South Carolina, it’s not clear his campaign can pivot elsewhere and after Tuesday, almost 40% of the delegates will have been claimed.
Aides say they have a plan. They are hoping a media-driven comeback narrative will give him a boost everywhere on Super Tuesday. They then hope to build an on-the-ground effort for states that vote on March 10, and say that volunteers have finally figured out how to harness the power of the Democratic National Committee-supported organizing tools.
But the fact is, just getting to this point has been a struggle.
Biden had staked his fortunes on African American voters here in a state where two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate is expected to be black. He campaigned as Barack Obama’s faithful understudy and suggested that the only reason Obama won the White House in 2008 was because Biden delivered the white, working-class voters of Pennsylvania. Biden dinged Sanders as insufficiently pro-Obama and said he was ready to mount a primary against them in 2012. In his appearances, Biden credited the Civil Rights movement as his gateway into politics and a gig as a public defender as more rewarding than the white-shoe law firm he left to do it.
At the same time, the money rolled in. A solid debate performance on Tuesday let him cash in a $1 million day of fundraising on Wednesday and after an unscripted and genuine CNN town hall that evening donations continued to flow. Overall, the pro-Biden super PAC has pocketed more than $3 million this week and has started booking a little airtime in North Carolina and Alabama for Super Tuesday. Détente has taken hold among the Democrats who fear Sen. Bernie Sanders could win the nomination, allowing Biden to avoid criticism from his peers who instead have trained their aggression on Sanders.
On Wednesday, James Clyburn, the top black Democrat in the House and South Carolina’s most important kingmaker, threw his backing Biden’s way and cemented a likely insurmountable leg-up. Recognizing the potency of the Clyburn endorsement, the Biden political hands started to roll out endorsements that were expected to resonate with black and brown voters. In North Carolina, the Biden team announced the backing of Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, In Texas, Biden picked up support from Rep. Sylvia Garcia. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2016, also joined the Biden efforts.
That’s not to say Biden is suddenly flawless. He still is a meandering storyteller who has his verbal ticks that help him power through a lifelong stutter. He wanders around stages like a Las Vegas headliner and knows his answers go too long. At the town hall on Wednesday, he apologized to his host for aimlessly engaging in free-association observations. Still, though, he managed to win over at least two members of that audience who walked into the theater undecided, asked questions and left as members of Team Joe.
The question is whether it will be enough to derail Sanders, who has the steam at this point. Sanders won more voters, but not delegates, than anyone in Iowa. The Vermonter then handily won neighboring New Hampshire’s primary and Nevada’s caucuses. Most anticipate a strong second-place showing in South Carolina. And, starting Tuesday, billionaire Mike Bloomberg starts appearing on the ballots. And as helpful as the $3.8 million the Biden super PAC spent in January was, it’s impossible to go dollar-for-dollar with Bloomberg’s fortune. Biden is hoping momentum can blunt money.
Polls do show Biden with a safe, and perhaps widening, advantage in South Carolina. On the eve of the primary, Biden had held onto the top spot in all 34 of South Carolina polls tracked by Real Clear Politics. One of them, Emerson College’s survey, released Thursday, showed Biden up by 16 points.
Numbers aside, the results are a joyful Biden. Sure, he sometimes shouts into the microphone, but that’s mostly in disgust about President Donald Trump. Unlike a campaign that felt like dutiful chores in Iowa and his eat-your-vegetables sequel in New Hampshire, Biden in South Carolina seems to be fully engaged in the task at hand and more comfortable here, among old friends. For the first time in this campaign appears to be sincerely happy that he decided to run. Whatever the result on Saturday, at least he has that.