GREENWOOD, S.C. — Fired Up! Ready to Go!
The call-and-response that propelled Barack Obama’s road to the White House — chanted in rallies across the country, printed on T-shirts, and shared in viral hype videos — was born in this small city in the foothills of South Carolina’s Upstate region.
A local councilwoman here, Edith Childs, used it to rouse a crowd waiting for a travel-weary Obama in 2007.
On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden rolled into Greenwood, where he was greeted by a warm but subdued crowd. There were no impassioned outbursts, except for at the end, when a protester confronted Biden about President Obama’s record on deportations. At one point, a video cameraman suggested a woman in the front row do the “fired up” chant. It didn’t catch on.
Biden is not Obama. But his connection to the first black president is one of his biggest assets with African American voters, particularly in South Carolina, a state critical to his bid for the Democratic nomination, Roughly two-thirds of primary voters in the state are black. There’s a growing sense he won’t win Iowa or New Hampshire as he slips in the polls there. But he needs a show of force in South Carolina.
“The question is can he stay on track and not make any huge mistakes?" said State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who is undecided. "I believe this is the race for him. If he can’t win South Carolina, he’s done.”
While older black voters back him, younger ones are more uncertain. Many elected Democrats in the state have yet to endorse, a sign to some political operatives that they’re still unsure whether Biden has what it takes.
“Look, nobody’s passing the plate during an altar call because Joe Biden just gave a speech,” Kimpson said. "But you know what? People are exhausted and I think that plays in favor of someone who has experience, who’s deliberate, methodical, and safe.”
Biden has been coming to South Carolina for three decades. He’s vacationed here. He name-drops former Senate colleagues Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond In Greenwood, he told the crowd he has a “long-standing love affair” with the Palmetto State.
And according to the polls, they love him back. Biden has a 20-point lead on any other candidate in the state — and a 33-point lead among black voters, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
“No matter what happens, South Carolina will vote overwhelmingly for Joe Biden in the primary,” predicted State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who supports Biden.
In interviews with 27 black Democrats over the age of 35 in Orangeburg, Columbia, and Greenwood, all but two said they would vote for Biden if the primary were held today (one picked billionaire Tom Steyer and another liked Bernie Sanders). Pushed on how solid their support for Biden is, they shrugged off the gaffes and the sliding poll numbers, and said they couldn’t imagine their minds will change.
“He succumbs to the human condition,” said J.T. Farmer, a retired college professor in Columbia, explaining Biden’s debate stumbles. “I see 20-year-olds in the classroom doing the same thing.”
Willie Johnson, a Realtor from Orangeburg, said South Carolina doesn’t take much note of Iowa or New Hampshire. “One thing you will appreciate about people down here is they tell you how they feel, and they stick to it," he said.
Biden supporters here called him trustworthy, a statesman, and a safe bet to beat President Donald Trump. Some said they were cautious of “revolutionary ideas” like Medicare for All. Others admitted Biden is the candidate they know and, with 17 candidates in the mix, vetting the newcomers seems daunting.
“I don’t really have time to get into the weeds and I know I like Biden,” Malika Stokes, 45, said outside the Orangeburg library. “I’m not excited about anybody. But I feel safe with Biden.”
Biden supporters say they’re often challenged on what, other than the Obama connection, they like about him. Keith Glover gets tired of that question. “You know what? I liked the Obama era," he said. “I like the idea of getting back to it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and that’s how a lot of folks feel.”
Glover and Johnson have another thing in common: They know a lot of South Carolinians younger than they are who disagree.
“My daughter works for Bernie Sanders,” Glover said.
As Biden stumbled in his opening statement at the Democratic debate Wednesday night, a room of college students watching at Claflin University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, groaned.
“Come on, Joe,” one student said. Later, Biden misspoke when he said the “only” female African American in the Senate had backed him. “Nope, that’s not true. The other one is here,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California reminded him.
“He can’t even get his own statements right!” said Otiana Thompson, a freshman who is considering voting for Biden but says he’s not progressive enough. “I love [New Jersey Sen. Cory] Booker, morally, but who do I think is gonna win is Biden. He’s probably going to get my vote, but he’s also going to hold us back.”
“I think he’s a bit behind the times for students and African American students who tend to be more left-leaning," said Emersen Frazier, 20, a junior. "I’ve heard from students they don’t how trustworthy he is or if he’ll be active enough to make the changes they are wishing to see.”
Frazier likes Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Her generation is less attached to Obama, she said: “We were in elementary and middle school when he got elected, so we may not remember that impact of his campaign as strongly.”
Biden’s support among 18- to 34-year-old voters here isn’t great, but it’s not bad. He comes in third with 15 percent among that demographic, behind Sanders (31 percent) and Warren (19 percent). In South Carolina, of 3.3 million registered voters, about 125,000 are between 18 and 34, a little less than 4 percent.
The students at Claflin have heard from most of the campaigns, including Biden’s, which has put a priority on younger voters as his challengers appeal to that constituency.
Biden has more endorsements from South Carolina elected officials than anyone else, but some notable Democratic politicians in the largely Republican state have put their support elsewhere. The mayor of Columbia last week endorsed Michael Bloomberg. State Rep. Jerry Govan, chair of the state’s legislative black caucus, who endorsed Biden in 2008, backs Steyer. And many eyes are on U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, an African American who is the most powerful Democrat in the state and hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate.
“I think some are still weighing their options because they want to see is Joe the viable candidate to beat Trump,” said Brandon Brown, who was South Carolina state director for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s short-lived presidential campaign.
Biden’s team has to shore up that support, said Fletcher Smith, a former county councilman who worked on Biden’s 2008 campaign. “If all the black elected officials start pulling around to say Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, I think you’ll see a big shift,” Smith said. “He needs to make sure he knows he can’t ignore black elected officials.”
At the Greenwood town hall, the lawmaker who introduced Biden, State Rep. Ann Parks, has not endorsed anyone. Childs, the woman who fired up the crowds for Obama here more than a decade ago, did not attend the event.
Ann Smith was one of the 800-some people who did. A 65-year-old retired nurse, she’s been voting since 1972, the year they changed the voting age to 18. The South Carolina primary is a little less than 100 days away, but she’s ready to vote. “I’m very sure about him," she said.
Have his debate stumbles bothered her?
Does she think a drop in the polls would affect her support?
What if he were to lose in Iowa and New Hampshire?