South Carolina black vote seals Buttigieg fate, breathes new life into Biden campaign

Former Vice President Joe Biden won Saturday's South Carolina primary, a crucial result for his struggling campaign. The victory gives him the momentum to stay in the race at least through Super Tuesday. On the other hand, it was the end of the road for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who had exceeded expectations with success in Iowa and New Hampshire. His crushing defeat on Saturday highlighted his struggles with a diverse electorate.

Black voters make up around 60% of South Carolina’s registered Democrats. This electorate provided a different challenge from the majority white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

For Biden, South Carolina offered the chance to revive his campaign ahead of Super Tuesday. He addressed a packed gym in Charleston on the Monday before the primary, a last ditch effort to drum up support.

Joe Biden
Biden enjoyed a comprehensive victory in the South Carolina primay.

Professor Damon Fordham, an expert in African-American history, was among those in the crowd. I asked him about Biden's chances.

"I don’t think he will lose here in South Carolina," he said. "I think he will do very well."

Fordham noted that South Carolina's conservative leanings would be a difficult obstacle for progressive candidates to overcome. He predicted Buttigieg would struggle for this reason, and because of his relative new-comer status.

Buttigieg battles to convince doubters

But the biggest challenge for Buttigieg was convincing a diverse electorate of his candidacy. Leading up to South Carolina, he had exceeded expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire but did poorly in Nevada, which has a large Hispanic population. His campaign saw South Carolina as a chance to show voters he could adapt, and was open to thier concerns.

Buttigieg and a black voter
Buttigieg struggled to attract non-white voters.

His efforts on this front were centered around the "Douglass Plan," his policy platform on African-American issues. Portia Allen-Kyle, an advisor who helped author the plan, explained it at a women's roundtable event in the town of Abbeville.

"The Douglass Plan is a comprehensive investment in Black America," she said, adding that it addresses issues ranging from education to criminal justice to housing.

Buttigieg also made an effort to show his commitment to making healthcare more accessible to African-American communities. He hosted a roundtable with black healthcare professionals and activists in Greenville, where he fielded questions on policy specifics.

Rally in Charleston
Buttigieg makes a last ditch appeal in Charleston.

He also had the support of one of the state's most prominent political scions. Walter Clyburn Reed is the grandson of Representative James E. Clyburn and served as a campaign organizer for Buttigieg.
I spoke to Clyburn Reed in the week leading up to the primary at a Buttigieg event in Charleston, where he was the opening speaker.

"When I was thinking about who I should support, I was really big on social justice, racial justice, as well as civil rights," he said.

Over the past months, Clyburn Reed was a busy surrogate for the campaign, making numerous appearances at the state's historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs. He admitted that the initial reception at these events was lukewarm, saying it was because the students "don't know much about him [Pete] at the moment."

But Buttigieg's defeat show that he was ultimately unable to connect with the state's black voters in a meaningful way. CNN exit polls show that he received only 3 percent of the black vote.

Biden bounces back

The exit polls indicate it was the support of the other Clyburn which determined the election. Almost half of all voters cited Representative James Clyburn's endorsement of Biden as the top factor in how they decided who to support.

Leading up to the primary, Biden had an active week, crisscrossing the state to shore up support among crucial communities. After taking part in the Democratic debate on Tuesday, he traveled southeast to Georgetown where he was greeted by an enthusiastic group of supporters.

Wesley Gibson was among those in the crowd. Retired after a career in the Air Force, Gibson has been an ardent Biden supporter for years. He had even brought a photo of himself with the former vice president taken at an event years earlier.

Wesley Gibson
Wesley Gibson is an enthusiastic Biden supporter.

Gibson said he was in favor of the ideas and policies of many of the other candidates but had reservations about their electability. For example, he said he liked Buttigieg but worried that America was not ready for an openly gay president.

"I don't think Americans are ready for a First Man instead of a First Lady," he said. "I have no bias against it. But I don't think America is ready for that."

The Comeback Kid

Joe Biden was able to rely on the backing of South Carolina's black voters to give his campaign a shot in the arm. His big win allows him to head into Super Tuesday with a measure of momentum. But for Buttigieg, his failure to drum up diverse support spelled the end of his candidacy.