By Saturday night, we will know if South Carolina is the firewall that ex-Vice President Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment needed to prevent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ socialist revolution from consuming the party in an uncontrollable conflagration.
Biden needs the Palmetto State to be a firestorm that sucks the oxygen out of Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Above all, he needs to fight the “Bern” with fire.
The latest Clemson University poll shows Biden with a commanding 18-point lead over his socialist rival. For now, it appears African-American Democrats are ignoring Biden’s poor finishes and sticking by former President Barack Obama’s right-hand man.
A Queens political operative with ties to South Carolina told me that Saturday will be “our turn at-bat.” “White voters have had theirs. Latinos had theirs. Now, African Americans will make their preference known.”
The operative believes black voters will hit a bases-clearing walk-off home run for Biden and the party establishment. He also believes that as the Democratic Party’s most loyal and pragmatic core constituency, “they’re not down with what Sanders is selling.” (I’m not as confident.)
For Biden, the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, the dean of black politics in South Carolina, goes a long way toward kindling a fire beneath his flagging candidacy.
Clyburn’s public support comes just as African-American voters are rallying to Biden’s side in the latest polls. “I know Joe,” Clyburn said. “We know Joe. … But most importantly, Joe knows us,” said Clyburn in his remarks endorsing Obama’s former No. 2.
Clyburn is telling his constituents, in effect: Let’s win this for our guy — because he’s been there for us. But the endorsement may not be as important as his massive voter-mobilization organization, which is expected to bring black voters to the polls for Biden in droves.
An African American active in Charleston Democratic Party circles agreed that he doesn’t see Clyburn’s endorsement changing votes. “People have pretty much made up their minds.” He added that the primary is a two-person race between Biden and Sanders.
The Charleston activist thinks younger black Millennials skew towards Sanders, over his stances on student loans and child-care issues. African-American women and voters over 40, meanwhile, favor Biden, because they believe he is the best Democrat capable of beating President Trump.
While Biden does have a lock on older voters, for now, that doesn’t mean that black voters as a whole are immune to the pull of Sanders’ front-runner status. His early victories — even if they came at slim margins — are causing some to give him a second look.
One black voter in a CNN focus group recently opined that African Americans thought Biden was a sure bet to bring people together, but “he’s been in two of the whitest places in the country, and he’s lost.” That’s just “miserable!”
That impression of a failed has-been will continue to haunt Biden going into Super Tuesday, even if he triumphs in South Carolina.
Biden lost in the two states that his ex-boss either won outright or split with Hillary Clinton in 2008. And though he narrowly lost to Hillary in Nevada, Obama walked away with one more delegate than she did. Those results went a long way in legitimizing Obama in the minds of black voters across the country.
Biden may emerge victorious in South Carolina, but you can bet blacks in the Super Tuesday states will reassess him.
If a white, working-class politician with decades of Washington experience can’t beat a democratic socialist from Brooklyn in New Hampshire and Iowa, don’t expect black voters to put all of their eggs in the creaky Biden basket.
He has yet to prove any electoral legitimacy other than being Obama’s loyal vice president. The black vote isn’t a blinkered monolithic bloc. Thus, South Carolina may yet prove a last hurrah for an old friend.
One thing the Democratic Party can be assured of is that African-American voters are united in their desire to beat Trump in November.
They’ll turn out to vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. A nervous party establishment prays that person will be Joe Biden, not Comrade Sanders.
Michael Benjamin is a member of The Post’s Editorial Board. Twitter: @SquarePegDem
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