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Biden looks for primary payoff after investing in South Carolina

South Carolina goes to the polls Saturday, offering the first official primary test for President Biden.

The president has invested heavily in the state and comes off a win in New Hampshire’s unsanctioned primary last month as a write-in candidate.

Democratic strategists said the attention Biden has given to the state should pay off in a major victory against two long-shot opponents.

“His campaign has done a really good job of meeting voters where they are. I’ve been impressed with his visibility, surrogates’ visibility, the vice president, secretaries — they’re literally doing the work,” said Bakari Sellers, a political analyst and Democratic former South Carolina House member.

Biden entered the 2020 Democratic presidential race as the front-runner in a crowded field, having led in the polls throughout most of 2019. But his campaign was suddenly in dire straits after he placed fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.

The South Carolina primary was the turning point he needed. He received an endorsement from the influential Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was serving as House majority whip at the time, and cruised to a comfortable win that set him up for Super Tuesday the following week and eventually his path to the White House.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, some Democrats called for a reshuffling of the primary calendar to replace the overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire as the first states to vote with ones that better reflect the country and party’s diversity.

Biden requested in 2022 that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) set a new primary schedule that would place South Carolina first, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day, then Georgia, then Michigan. The DNC approved the change last February.

The move stirred some backlash among New Hampshire Democrats, who emphasized the state’s historic tradition of having the first primary. The state, which has a law requiring it to go first, went ahead with its primary last month anyway. Biden easily won through an intensive write-in campaign — despite not formally being on the ballot and the primary not awarding candidates any delegates for the nomination.

Strategists said Biden has sent a message with his Palmetto State emphasis, which should help demonstrate unified Democratic support for his candidacy.

Sellers said Biden has been able to articulate his plans to voters on issues such as criminal justice reform, immigration and the economy, particularly to Black South Carolinians who made up a notable portion of his support in 2020. He said these efforts can be duplicated in other states that will be pivotal in the general election, including Georgia and North Carolina.

“For Black voters, having the president here, coming to your house or your beauty salon or your school, especially going into January, February, that’s what counts,” Sellers said.

Last weekend in Columbia, Biden began remarks to attendees at a dinner for the state party by thanking the state.

“You’re the reason I am president. You’re the reason Kamala Harris is a historic vice president. And you’re the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president,” he said. “And you’re the reason we’re going to win and beat him again.”

South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Clay Middleton said the state’s position as first in the nation makes it more important to show solid support for Biden and “return the favor” for Biden support of it being first.

Middleton, a member of the DNC, said South Carolinians have been appreciative of Biden’s role in the new primary schedule.

“It’s the momentum that’s needed to move forward. We’ve been telling people here in South Carolina that it’s important that people realize that we’re starting this thing off,” he said.

About 50,000 people have voted early in the state, demonstrating voter enthusiasm for the contest, he said. He expects Biden will at least receive a higher percentage of votes than in New Hampshire.

Biden won the Granite State’s primary by more than 40 points over his next-closest opponent, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has launched a long-shot bid against him. Phillips and author Marianne Williamson, who received 4 percent support in New Hampshire, will also be on the ballot in South Carolina.

Middleton said he expects strong turnout throughout the state following extensive organizing efforts, including a bus tour from the state party and visits from Biden surrogates such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D).

Democratic strategist Matt Krayton said the most symbolic significance of the primary is a “long overdue investment” in the “backbone of the party.”

More than a quarter of South Carolina’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Krayton said if investments aren’t made to have a more diverse group of voices in the decisionmaking process and work isn’t put in to appeal to those voters, many places get out of reach.

In the presidential election, South Carolina has been a reliably red state for decades, having not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Krayton said the new calendar is the first step in creating a more inclusive process with greater say from Black and brown voters.

“That will be the durable legacy of what goes on here beyond the general election and the campaign in general,” he said.

Democratic strategist Jared Leopold said the primary will be more symbolic, as the primary electorate will be different from that for the general election. But it is an opportunity to focus on driving a message that will get people to turn out, he said.

Leopold said a disconnect still exists between those inside and outside the political spheres about how the 2024 race is shaping up and the likelihood of Trump and Biden being their respective parties’ nominees.

Krayton said most Americans are not paying attention every day to political developments.

“People are going to start tuning in a little bit more as we get closer to Election Day in November, but at this point, there are a million other demands on people’s time,” he said.

Leopold said the primary campaign will be an opportunity for Biden to make people more aware of his record and his contrast with Trump, and make voters who are less politically engaged realize the upcoming match-up.

“South Carolina’s a big step towards people realizing it’s going to be Biden versus Trump, and the choice is going to be a stark one between the two,” he said.

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