Leaning on His Backbone, Biden’s Soul of the Nation Bus Tour Swings Through Palmetto State

Feb 24, 2020

About two weeks ago, when Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden realized his showing in the New Hampshire Primary was going to be low, the former Vice President made a trip to South Carolina for a launch party. Surrounded by a diverse crowd of energetic supporters, Biden said despite poor numbers in Iowa, and similar expectations in New Hampshire, their fight was just beginning.

“We haven’t heard from the most committed constituents of the Democratic party; the African-American community.”

South Carolina’s first in the South Primary will show how popular Biden, and the other presidential candidates, are with African American voters, the demographic makes up about 60% of the state’s democratic party.

The thought process is, if a candidate does well in South Carolina they will likely do well in subsequent voting states.

The former Vice President’s connections to the state run deep and wide. A week after announcing his bid for the presidency, Biden was at community center in Columbia, SC laying out his vision for “rebuilding America’s middle class” and unifying the country.

The 77-year old has a long-time friendship with Congressman Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and a key South Carolina voice. Just this past Sunday, Clyburn announced he will officially endorse Bide after Tuesday’s debate.

Biden also has a connection with South Carolina’s late Sen. Earnest Fritz Hollings. The two were seat mates for 32 years in the U.S. Senate. Biden delivered a eulogy at Hollings funeral in April of 2019.

And then there is the connection of serving as vice president to the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama. For South Carolina’s large African-American democratic electorate, this connection may be the strongest of all.

Biden senior advisor Symone Sanders talks with a group of supporters in Bishopville, SC Friday, Feb. 21.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ South Carolina Public Radio

But according to recent polls, other candidates are also setting down roots and cutting into Biden’s presumed front-runner lead. In the final stretch to the February 29 primary, the Biden campaign is revisiting these deep connections. Additional stops were added to Biden’s Soul of the Nation bus tour. Friday, Biden’s sister Valerie Biden Owens and his senior advisor Symone Sanders traveled to Gaffney, Rock Hill, Kingstree and Bishopville to connect with voters.

Biden Owens shared anecdotal stories about her brother, hoping to reinforce what many already feel as having a personal connection with the former vice president.

Bishopville resident Willie McDonald listens as Valerie Biden Owens talks about her brother Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. McDonald said he's voting for Biden because he best represents him.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ South Carolina Public Radio

"I opened my eyes and he was there. He put out his hands and said come on kid we got things to do, places to go and people to see; and we began our journey," she said.

Biden Owens is Vice Chair of the Biden Institute for Domestic Policy at the University of Delaware. She shared she's ran all of her brother's campaigns, "since he ran for class president." Her role with the University keeps her from managing this one, she said. But by working for her brother, she become one of the first women in the country to manage a modern US Senatorial campaign.

"The pundits, who all happen to be men, said if you're going to do this, you have to have a campaign manager who is brilliant and a strategist and who has experience, so he chose me." This connection, outside of family ties, is one the campaign is hoping will resonate with voters. "He's the kind of person who helps others find their own power," she added.

66-year-old Shirley Hill serves on Bishopville city council and works within the home healthcare industry. She said she supports Biden because she believes in him.

“I believe in the things he speaks of. I generally believe his heart is for the people as a whole,” Hill said.

Retired school worker, turn entrepreneur Willie McDonald said at one point he was considering supporting another candidate but changed his mind when thinking past the primary to November.

“He represents more of us now than the rest of the candidates, and besides, eight years of the president we have now is too much,” McDonald said.

Bishopville is a small city about an hour Southwest of Columbia. According to the 2010 census, just over 3400 people live there, the majority African-American. But like place places throughout the state, support for Bide cuts across racial lines.

State representative Will Wheeler said he endorsed Vice President Biden shortly after he made his announcement to run for president. He said he first met Biden when he was campaigning with Barack Obama.

“He [Biden] came through campaigning with President Obama, not in this same building, but in a building across town; I met him for the first time and I’ve loved Joe Biden forever.”

Despite these deep connections, in recent weeks polls have shown Biden’s lead in the state dwindling.

Michael Bailey is publisher of the Minority Eye, an online news magazine geared towards African Americans, he said other candidates have also been building deep lasting relationships with voters and, cutting into Biden’s presumed lead.

“One of the reasons you see Tom Steyer moving up I the polls, is because he has put his money into the black community. He has talked to the black community and he has sat down with community leaders,” Bailey said.

Early polls showed Biden, at one point, with a near 30 point- front runner lead. More recent polls, including the CBS/ YOUGOV and Winthrop polls, show that margin has dramatically decreased, to within just 5 points.

Tom Steyer has shown the greatest increase, polling at 2% in November and now at about 24%.

South Carolina’s democratic primary is Saturday, February 29th.. Active candidates on the ballot are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klocbuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard