ALCOLU, S.C. — No matter who wins the Democratic presidential primary on Saturday, the story of South Carolina will be one of missed opportunities for a field of candidates that failed to fully connect with the state's black electorate.
That may be most true for former Vice President Joe Biden, who is well positioned to win the state but could fall short of the kind of decisive victory that catapulted Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination in 2008 and 2016, respectively.
This is the first time since 2004 that no single candidate is poised to take the vast majority of the African American vote. So, there should have been a premium this year on candidates courting black voters pocket by pocket to build a coalition. But polling suggests that, with only a day left until the last election before Super Tuesday, that hasn't happened yet.
"Some are doing it well, some are still trying to figure it out," said Clay Middleton, who served as state director for Clinton's campaign.
That lack of political sophistication on the part of the Democratic campaigns may limit the state's traditional role as a bellwether and an influencer for heavily African American states in the Deep South and delegate-rich cities on the coasts and in the industrial Midwest later in the nominating process. If the trend continues in those states and cities, the power of black voters in picking the eventual Democratic nominee could be reduced from the decisive role they played in the 2008 and 2016 primaries.
With no candidate an automatic choice for the majority of black voters here, each hopeful had a chance to go deep into demographic nuances of the broader community to tailor messages to, say, women with post-graduate degrees, married men who work for wages, or poultry farmers. But attention to such detail was limited in 2020.
The only black candidates to enter the race — Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts — dropped out long before the campaign turned to South Carolina. As the field grew whiter, and even as it got smaller, the challenge for strategists remained the same: There was no real playbook to follow.
"Most black voters have only had two choices in recent Democratic primary history, and so it’s a lot easier to consolidate when there are two choices and one is clearly better than the other than when there are seven choices and you feel the same about all of them," said Addisu Demissie, who was Booker's campaign manager.
"Obama and Clinton both had unique strong historical appeal among black voters," he said of candidates who each won more than 80 percent of the African American electorate in the state. "I do not think there are any candidates in the race right now who have that same level of affinity, and Biden is the closest."
Biden, who holds a 12-point overall lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls in the state, came in first with 34 percent among African American voters in an East Carolina University survey released this week. He was followed by billionaire Tom Steyer at 24 percent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 22 percent and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 6 percent.
That's a big lead for Biden, but nothing near the commanding totals he saw in early polling in the state or the shock-and-awe margins that signaled Obama and Clinton were the uncontested choices of black voters in the years they won. When Biden's numbers slipped following poor performances in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, no one else was able to fully take advantage.
Only Steyer poured cash into advertising in the state, much of it targeted at building support in the black community. While he had the resources to test Biden's early strength, most of their rivals were hesitant to invest much cash and time when they thought Biden had the African American electorate secured. So, when Biden began to falter, the others had not laid much groundwork.
"What we’re seeing now is a belated competition for voters that were probably always up for grabs in the first place," Demissie said.
Biden has steadied himself over the last week with a second-place finish in Nevada, a solid debate performance here Tuesday and a crucial endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking African American official in Congress.
Still, Demissie said that a fractured African American electorate is ultimately good for Sanders, even if Biden wins the primary here.
"That is to the benefit of a candidate that has a strong base outside of the black vote," Demissie said. "Sanders is the only candidate that has a rock-solid base."
Sanders has made more of a play for black voters in this election than he did in 2020, and his victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday showed a coalition that included significant shares of the white, black and Latino votes.
In May, he went to Bamberg County, where he won just 197 votes in 2016 — about 10 percent of those cast — to talk to residents about toxic chemicals in the water in the town of Denmark and environmental justice. He also stopped in Orangeburg, another spot on the state's impoverished "Corridor of Shame," to unveil his "Thurgood Marshall plan" for public education.
"He's the only candidate in the race with a real message — everyone else in the race is running around with platitudes," said state Rep. Cezar McKnight, a Sanders backer who represents a district along the corridor in Clarendon and Williamsburg counties. "Sen. Sanders has laid out a platform that helps black people and poor people in particular, and I think that message is resonating."
The wild card at the national level could be former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has invested heavily not only in television ads featuring former President Barack Obama praising him, and in staff on the ground across the country, but in the kind of data operation that could yield results in tapping into niche groups of voters within the black community.
"If he were on the ballot in South Carolina, he would be very competitive," Middleton said. "When Mayor Bloomberg got in the race, overnight he had staff offices, he had infrastructure in place. … He has had a relationship and a record of the organizations he has supported within the African American community."
To the extent that black voters have demonstrated unity in this election so far, it is far more for a specific purpose than in getting behind a single candidate. Defeating President Donald Trump is the singular goal for most African American voters, even if that means nominating a hopeful whose record and platform don't align perfectly with their own interests.
State Rep. Tavia Galonski, who was recently named a senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign in Ohio, explained the dynamics of pragmatic voting in an interview with NBC News last fall.
"I'm not excited for Biden," she said in October. "I just know in my heart he's the only possible hope for Ohio to go against Trump. I honestly believe that in my fiber."
If most black voters care primarily about beating Trump but are divided over which candidate has the best chance of doing that, the challenge for each candidate is to meet each voter at the point at which he or she makes that decision about competitiveness against Trump and then closing the sale.
The idea of a complex black electorate — pockets of voters concerned about issues that cross economic, social, generational and political lines — is one most modern Democratic operatives haven't had to wrestle with much.
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which has commissioned polls of black voters across the country during this election cycle, said there are three basic themes that have emerged from the surveys she's seen: Black voters want to defeat Trump; just opposing him is not enough for some black voters — particularly those who are young, those who voted third party in 2016 and those who didn't vote in 2016; and there is a desire to elect someone who will bring the country together.
For that reason, she said, she's not sure that black voters won't end up forming more of a bloc for one candidate in this primary — and then in upcoming contests.
"There is some consensus, and that consensus has formed over the last three years," she said. "Ultimately, over the next [few] days, whatever it is we have left, that that will play out. I’m not convinced that we will see the kind of stark fracturing that we’ve seen in the polls in the actual vote."
In other words, it's all over but the voting. And yet one of the clear lessons campaigns already can take away from the South Carolina primary is that they have a lot of work to do to understand the black electorate.
"One of the things that has been clarifying as of late is where we see the black vote not being a monolith," Shropshire said. "It is in the Democratic primary where you can see the diversity of thinking, of ideology, of perspective, of priorities."