By: Elie Mystal
Joe Biden smashed the competition in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary over the weekend. He beat his next closest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by almost 30 points. In the first state where the African American vote has been a consequential force, Biden’s consistent strength among black folks took the day: He won 61 percent of African American voters, according to exit polling.
Many people, including the Biden campaign, will tell you that Biden’s strong showing is an indication of his “electability” in a general election. Biden has been running as the “safe” choice to take on Trump. African Americans, especially those in the South, who have the most to lose with the reelection of a bigot who courts the favor of white supremacists, would seem to agree. Biden has led in the polling among black people since he set foot in this race.
It’s reasonable to ask why. Biden has spent most of the campaign stepping on rakes and losing himself in foggy memories of times gone by. His debate performances have been listless. His speeches and town halls have been heavy on empathy but horrifying on factual accuracy. The reality of Biden feels considerably less safe than the idea of Biden. In fact, it has been Biden’s apparent weakness that is primarily responsible for making Mike Bloomberg think he can swoop in and buy the nomination.
Biden’s actual history and policy record also makes him a weird choice to be the leader among African American voters. Biden has gone to great lengths to claim credit for the successes of the Obama administration—to the point where I’m starting to wonder what Obama did all day while Biden was busy making things happen. Biden claims to have been “there” for everything that’s been done by Democrats for the past 40 years. But only the good parts! The now reviled 1994 crime bill, which Biden wrote; his shameful treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings; his opposition to busing and friendliness with segregationists—all of that is part of his record too. But none of it has hurt him. If Kamala Harris had benefited from this kind of selective memory when it comes to policy, this entire race might be different.
Biden’s strength among African Americans in South Carolina was not universal. Black people are not a monolith, and the exit polling showed a split that has become familiar during this primary. Bernie Sanders narrowly beat Joe Biden among black voters under 30. And Bernie didn’t even have to “back that azz up” to get it. But Biden won a sweeping 75 percent of black voters over 60.