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Is South Carolina still Joe Biden’s firewall?

Seven candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination will meet on the debate stage Tuesday in South Carolina, whose primary is just days away. The race’s front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has the current momentum, but former Vice President Joe Biden hopes he can pull out a win due to his support from black voters. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Vice President Joe Biden has long staked his claim in the run for the Democratic presidential nomination on winning in South Carolina. But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has lately been gaining on him in the polls there.

    And, as our Yamiche Alcindor reports, voters in the first-in-the-South Democratic primary are grappling with who they will pick this Saturday.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    South Carolina, long considered Joe Biden's firewall, but is it still?

    The former vice president has been hoping black voters would give him the momentum to win the nomination. In this state, they make up 60 percent of Democratic primary voters. But since the fall, Biden's support here has dropped nearly 20 percent.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    We are putting together an unprecedented multigenerational, multiracial political movement.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sanders, the race's front-runner, is now within single digits of Biden in the Palmetto State.

  • Akayla Sellers:

    We are very energized, because it's very rare we see somebody with a track history that we — that Bernie Sanders has. And somebody like that, it makes us very passionate. It makes us very hopeful.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some of Biden's most faithful supporters sound concerned.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    I would have followed Joe Biden right up to the gates of hell.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jake Ferguson is a 64-year-old black veteran, father of six and grandfather of five. Older voters like him are central to Biden's base. In 2016, Jake wanted Biden to run for president. But now he's not so sure.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    My inference is that he is not showing the desire or the want to be president. He's kind of thinking he's entitled to this Democratic nomination.

    And, even more so than that, because he was Barack Obama's second chair, he thought he was automatically entitled to the African-American vote.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's the sense you got?

  • Jake Ferguson:

    It don't work that way.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    His 34-year-old son, Emmanuel, disagrees.

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    I personally am backing Joe Biden because he seems like he's best positioned to defeat Donald Trump.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, Emmanuel said he understands why millennials like him are more likely to support Sanders.

    Polls show Biden with a 25-point advantage over Sanders with voters 50 and up. But Sanders is 40 points ahead of Biden with voters under 35.

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    I love to hear Bernie Sanders speak. I think he is putting his finger on the pulse of the average American and can read that heartbeat very well.

    I think, at this point, Bernie Sanders is making a lot of wonderful promises, but doesn't have the ability to back them up.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    He's writing checks that he can't cash.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Emmanuel and Jake also have their concerns about other candidates. On former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

  • Jake Ferguson:

    He has some issues, and one being experience, that I can't reconcile at this point.

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    Marijuana arrests for African-Americans increased under his tenureship as mayor.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar:

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    I do think she's got to make sure her ideas on prosecution or criminal justice reform are clearly stated.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But the younger Ferguson admits he's also worried about Biden.

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    I think, if Joe Biden doesn't show well in South Carolina, everyone will make the assumption that he's beyond his time.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    His time has passed.

  • Emmanuel Ferguson:

    His time has passed.

  • Tom Steyer:

    My job is to take on Mr. Trump and kick his ass on the economy.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jake says he likes how billionaire Tom Steyer goes after President Trump directly in his political ads.

    Those ads have been filling South Carolina's airwaves for months. This past Sunday morning, Biden tried to bring some of the fire Jake has been looking for to black churchgoers in North Charleston.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    You have in your hands the power, unlike any time in a long time, to determine who the next Democratic nominee will be.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    After the service, Biden tried to calm concerned moderates in South Carolina, and beyond.

    A narrow win in South Carolina would also mean that you would be willing and ready to fight substantially to win in Super Tuesday states to go on?

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    Oh, look, I'm not going anywhere.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Those voters shouldn't be worried?

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay in this for the long haul. I think we will do well here. I think we will win here. And I think this could end up being a race between me and Bernie before it's over.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    He also weighed in on young voters who are fueling Sanders' rise.

    Why do you think you're not doing better among young voters, especially voters of color and young black voters, here in South Carolina?

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    Well, you know, look, Bernie has had a campaign going now for six years. And he's been working. He has a good organization. And I started very late in terms of young voters. That's been his base, where he got started. And so — but I'm going to compete for them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That will be a tough competition for Biden.

  • Kristen Graham:

    I don't see Joe Biden as our new future, as our new president. I don't think that his values are where my generation of people want to see the world go to.

  • Reagan Williams:

    There is no way to progress without being radical.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    First-time voters Kristen Graham and Reagan Williams say their experiences as queer black women have shaped their support for Sanders.

  • Reagan Williams:

    It was expected that I go to college. It was expected that I get an education. But there was no financial background or backing for me to get there.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That includes Sanders' plans to cancel student loan debt, address systemic racism, and implement Medicare for all. Graham says she lost an aunt because doctors didn't take her health problems seriously as a black woman.

  • Kristen Graham:

    She kept going to the hospital and kept going to doctors visits. She didn't know what it was. And they also couldn't figure it out. But it definitely felt like they weren't trying either.

    She had an ulcer in her intestines, and then it ruptured. And she's no longer with us today.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    With Sanders inching toward the Democratic nomination, Super Tuesday can't come soon enough for both women.

  • Kristen Graham:

    I see that the momentum is definitely on his side. And I just am very hopeful that he keeps that up.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    If Sanders does get the nomination, that worries the Fergusons.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    Bernie Sanders can't beat Trump, because Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. He is in the process of hijacking the Democratic Party.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jake is most concerned about Sanders' Medicare for all plan.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    I have had two shoulders replacements, two hip replacements, and it all happened under Obamacare. And now this guy Sanders, this independent, until it's no longer convenient to him, comes along and says, well, I want to get Medicare for all.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, for him, the choice will be clear in a race between Senator Sanders and President Trump.

  • Jake Ferguson:

    I will have to eat my words and vote for Bernie Sanders, but please don't put me in that position.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, Jake remains undecided. And he's not alone. One in five Democratic voters here haven't made up their minds. But there's no questioning this state will play a pivotal role in the 2020 race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now from Charleston, South Carolina.

    Yamiche, hello.

    So, you clearly have talked to a lot of voters while you have been down there the last few days. What else are they telling you, besides their views of the candidates, that is important to them in this primary?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Black voters in South Carolina want people all over the country to understand that African-American voters are not a monolith, that they have a range of concerns, everything from health care to education to women's issues.

    Now, the divisions that I'm seeing here in South Carolina are both working in favor for and against Joe Biden, who is seen as the front-runner here in the state of South Carolina. Of course, he's up against Bernie Sanders, who has also been making gains nationally and in other races.

    And what you see is, if you're someone who is a fighter, someone who wants to see somebody get in the mud with Donald Trump, who wants to see somebody defend himself, and who wants to see somebody radically change the systems around us, then you're someone who likes Bernie Sanders.

    But if you want someone who wants someone who you're familiar with, who's a statesman, who seems more reserved, you're someone who likes Joe Biden. And those are really the decisions that we're seeing here in South Carolina.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the debate tonight, Yamiche, I know you have been talking to some of these candidates, to their campaigns. What should we expect?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, if the first debate was a contentious one, with small battles, what we expect tonight is an all-out war on Bernie Sanders.

    He's going to be center stage, Judy. He's going to be flanked on his right and his left by Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. And then, on the ends of the stage, you're going to see two billionaires, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. And all of them tell me that they are focused on making sure that people understand, in their minds, that Bernie Sanders is too radical, and that he's trying to hijack the Democratic Party.

    I spoke to both Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg, who said that they are making sure that they want to explain to people that they think Bernie Sanders is someone who's polarizing. They also think that they have put out ads and said that they have put out ads to explain to South Carolina why they should not be voting for Bernie Sanders.

    But I also have talked to aides to Bernie from — to Bernie Sanders, who tell me that he is ready. He understands that he's the front-runner. He understands that he's going to have a target on his back. So we should also expect Bernie Sanders to push back very, very hard when he's attacked tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, one other thing I want to ask you about, prominent South Carolina Democrat Congressman James Clyburn, he's, of course, in the leadership in the House of Representatives.

    He is expected to endorse Joe Biden tomorrow. What are people saying about that? How much difference is that expected to make?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Joe Biden was calling South Carolina his firewall for months, except, in the last few days, he stopped using that language. And he stopped using that language because he understands that his lead has narrowed substantially.

    Now he's really up against Bernie Sanders, who's made a lot of gains with young voters here. So he's really looking for someone to help him get over the finish line here. Losing South Carolina would be detrimental to his campaign, aides tell me.

    So, Jim Clyburn endorsing him tomorrow, which is what we expect to happen, is going to really help him among establishment Democrats, who see Jim Clyburn, a longtime South Carolina Democrat, who they look to and say, if Jim Clyburn is someone who's backing Joe Biden, I want to go with him too.

    I was at a state party dinner last night. There was a lot of love in the room for Joe Biden. And Jim Clyburn and Joe Biden spent a long time talking about each other and embraced very long in front of this large crowd of Democratic voters.

    So what you're seeing in Jim Clyburn is someone who's trying to help Joe Biden, who is struggling a bit here in South Carolina, even though he's expected to win the state by a narrow margin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting, the timing of that endorsement, you're right, Yamiche, coming the day after the debate and just a few days before the primary.

    All right, Yamiche Alcindor, reporting for us from Charleston, thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much, Judy.

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