Old Joe Biden has revived his presidential candidacy, something even hostile or indifferent media have had to admit. On Feb. 29, the extra day of Leap Year, he won the South Carolina primary by a decisive margin.
Afterward, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota withdrew from the race. Both Democrats received low support in Nevada and South Carolina, despite favorable media.
South Carolina has proven pivotal in recent decades for presidential contenders from both parties. In 2000, Sen. John McCain decisively defeated George W. Bush in New Hampshire by 48.5% to 30%. Bush recovered to win the South Carolina primary in an ugly campaign, and went on to take the Republican nomination.
In 1992, Bill Clinton, after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses, was able to gain some traction in New Hampshire, and then crush opponents in South Carolina by winning almost 63% of the vote. Clinton’s renewed momentum carried him on to the Democratic nomination and victory in the November presidential election.
Likewise, in 2016 Donald Trump’s dramatic outsider candidacy received a significant boost in South Carolina. He was the top vote getter in the Republican primary, with 32.5%, 10 points ahead of nearest rival Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Biden’s victory in South Carolina directly reflects extremely strong support by African-American voters. He has an established record as a supporter of civil rights and someone who has worked in a long successful career of actually getting laws passed in Congress. This stands out in our era of celebrity candidates.
A perfectly timed endorsement by influential Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Democratic Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, was crucial. Biden emphasized how much his victory owes to this powerful number three leader of House Democrats. During his victory statement, he called out to “My buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back.”
Another important factor in voting preferences is that African-Americans generally are socially conservative and committed to religion. Biden’s relatively moderate policy positions in today’s Democratic Party give him strong appeal to relatively conservative voters who are serious about policy matters, including African-Americans.
Biden also benefits from his eight years as vice president during the administration of President Barack Obama. Recent presidents have generally treated their vice presidents as partners. This was true of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Each vice president went on to secure nomination for president, though only Bush won the White House.
Bush’s vice president, hapless Dan Quayle, is the exception to the trend for occupants to gain by holding the office. Quayle seemed somewhat lost. Dick Cheney, vice president under President George W. Bush, ruled out running for president.
Vice presidents, who occupy a very visible and now respected post, can thank the important founder of the modern version of the office - Richard M. Nixon.
Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt established the very powerful modern presidency, Nixon transformed the vice presidency during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower to a post of influence and respect, with a possible path to the White House.
Because Nixon elevated the vice presidency in influence, successors in that office are usually contenders for the presidency.
Biden enjoyed further impressive victories on “Super Tuesday” March 3, when 14 states and one territory held primaries.
He should thank Richard Nixon – though of course not publicly.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.