CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Democrats in two of the country's whitest states have spoken. Now begins the battle for black voters, with the Carolinas on the front lines.
As recently as two months ago, polls suggested that Joe Biden's lead in the African American community was insurmountable, making Barack Obama's vice president the heavy favorite to win the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 and in North Carolina three days later, on Super Tuesday, March 3.
But after Biden's distant fifth place in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary - coming a week after finishing fourth place in Iowa - many pundits and political scientists have begun writing his political obituary.
If Biden continues to fade, where will black voters go?
MIKE BLOOMBERG, MAYBE?
The billionaire's barrage of TV ads have cast him, not Biden, as Obama's partner on issues like gun control. And the former mayor of New York City is digging into his deep pockets to hire prominent African Americans to run his campaign in Super Tuesday states. Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell is getting paid $15,000 a month as Bloomberg's state director in North Carolina.
Bloomberg is also putting out millions of dollars around the country to advertise on black media. This week, a full-page Bloomberg ad is set to appear in The Charlotte Post and all other black-owned news sites in North Carolina.
The big spending appears to be paying off so far: A new national Quinnipiac poll found that Bloomberg's support among black voters rose from 8% before the Iowa caucuses to 22% this month. Most of that growth came at the expense of Biden, whose African American support in the same poll was nearly cut in half, from 52% to 27%.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats have accused Bloomberg of trying to "buy" the Democratic nomination.
Not so, said Mitchell, who presses the campaign's main theme: "We're not buying the election. We're spending money to beat Trump. There's a difference."
But Bloomberg's ascent has brought renewed scrutiny, especially to his embrace as mayor of "stop and frisk," a police tactic that was widely criticized in the African American community for profiling mostly young men of color. Days before announcing his run for president, Bloomberg apologized at a black church in Brooklyn. But Biden has hinted he'll make it an issue leading up to Super Tuesday. And audio of Bloomberg defending the policy in a 2015 speech surfaced this week.
"It's going to be a problem for Bloomberg in 'Black Lives Matter' America," said Adolphus Belk Jr., a professor of political science and African American Studies at Winthop University in South Carolina.
WHAT ABOUT SEN. BERNIE SANDERS?
Four years ago, during his last run for president, the senator from Vermont - another of those very white states - lost badly to Hillary Clinton in the Carolinas and other Southern states. The reason: her commanding support - 80% in North Carolina - among African American voters, especially women.
This time, in a more crowded field, Sanders' popularity with young black voters could make a difference in his delegate haul in the Carolinas.
"He's the favorite of my (19-year-old) son and all his friends," said the Rev. Ray McKinnon, an African American who's a member of the Democratic National Committee and a candidate for Mecklenburg County commissioner who endorsed Sanders in 2016 and again this year. "They're amenable to his call for revolution. For so long, we've been told to wait, as Dr. King said. ... No, we're tired of that. This election is too important."
But polls say Sanders is still stuck in third place, nationally and in the Carolinas, among African Americans.
A SECOND LOOK FOR PETE BUTTIGIEG AND AMY KLOBUCHAR?
As the fresh faces who did better than expected in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, both candidates are now basking in the media spotlight and rushing to build campaign organizations in North Carolina and other Super Tuesday states.
But, up to now, their support among black voters has been barely measurable. In the Feb. 10 Quinnipiac poll, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had 4% nationally; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had zero percent. The picture wasn't much better in North Carolina: The latest Public Policy Polling survey had Klobuchar at 3% with black voters in the state and Buttigieg with 5%.
Black voters shopping around for a new moderate alternative to Biden may take a look at Buttigieg and Klobuchar, especially as the national media step up their coverage of the two Midwesterners.
Buttigieg picked up a Wednesday endorsement from state Rep. J.A. Moore, an African American legislator from North Charleston, S.C..
But a brighter spotlight could also mean unflattering headlines and tough questions about how Buttigieg and Klobuchar handled racially-charged cases in their former jobs back home.
As South Bend mayor, Buttigieg took heat when he fired the city's first black police chief in 2012 and replaced him with a white chief. And the local African American community flashed anger toward him last year during a town hall meeting after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in South Bend.
Civil rights groups in Minneapolis, meanwhile, called on Klobuchar last month to suspend her presidential campaign after an investigation by The Associated Press raised questions about the conviction of a black teen in a case in which a child was killed in 2002 by a stray bullet. As then-Hennepin County Attorney, Klobuchar prosecuted the case.
THEN THERE'S ... TOM STEYER
A former hedge fund manager from San Francisco, billionaire Tom Steyer has bankrolled a TV ad blitz second only to Bloomberg's.
It got him on the debate stage with the other better-known Democratic presidential candidates. But it didn't seem to matter much in Iowa (he got 0.3% of the vote) or in New Hampshire (3.6% of the vote).
But Steyer has proved to be a surprise in at least one state: South Carolina. And he's now in the running there because of his wooing of black voters, who are expected to make up about two-thirds of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina.
He's spent more than $100,000 for ads in black-owned news sites, according to Politico, and hired 93 staffers - including some prominent black politicians.
He's the only candidate calling for reparations and an apology for African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States. And his emphasis on bread-and-butter issues seems to be resonating with the black community.
Steyer's wife, Kat, has stepped down from her banking job and relocated to Columbia for the rest of his 2020 campaign, the AP reported. He was in Rock Hill this week.
A January poll released this month by the Post and Courier in Charleston put Steyer in third place in the state, behind Biden and Sanders. But among black voters, Steyer was the choice of 24% - not far behind Biden's 30%.
"Tom was here early," said Michael Bailey, publisher of The Minority Eye, an online African American newspaper in Columbia that's so far run Steyer ads costing the campaign $27,000. "The other candidates had not invested in South Carolina because they assumed Biden had it wrapped up. Well, Biden don't. And now the others are scrambling."
BIDEN AS 2020'S COMEBACK KID?
Not so fast, said Biden and his allies.
Iowa and New Hampshire by themselves shouldn't decide who lives and who dies on the presidential trail, said U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., who has endorsed Biden and said she's sticking with him.
Those two states "do not look like the makeup of our country and certainly our party," she said. "I think I saw one black person on TV (during the Iowa caucuses)."
Her prediction: "I think (Biden) will be fine when he gets down here (in the South)."
Though several African American mayors and even a few other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have endorsed Bloomberg, Adams said she's convinced black voters will stick with Biden. "Biden's not going to have to convince African Americans," she said.
"Bloomberg will. There's not the same level of trust there. ... I think African Americans are concerned about some of what's in Bloomberg's history. I've talked to some folks in New York who don't seem to be real pleased with Bloomberg."
Biden's fate has fueled a debate about whether pundits and donors should wait for more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina to weigh in before writing off a candidate like Biden.
"We had (two) out of 57 states and territories vote. We've gone from white to whiter," said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina legislator and a frequent pundit on CNN, told the Charlotte Observer. "Let's pump the brakes a little bit and let black voters vote. ... I don't see a post-Biden (presidential) field."
Others, though, argue that black voters are practical, they want most of all to beat Trump, and Biden has proved he can't compete with a key group: white voters.
In 2008, said Belk of Winthrop College, black voters in South Carolina initially supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama because they weren't sure he could win the nomination or the general election. But they shifted after Obama won in Iowa - proof that he could appeal to white voters as well.
"The challenge for Biden is that, after Iowa and New Hampshire, he has to present himself as still built for the long haul," Belk said. "To stay in the race, you need some victories."
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