In a Myrtle Beach hotel ballroom that holds just under 2,000 people, Vice President Kamala Harris began ticking off President Joe Biden administration’s accomplishments that benefit Black Americans.
“We are connecting every family in South Carolina and across our nation with high-speed internet,” she said to the Black crowd at the 7th Episcopal District AME Church Women’s Missionary Society annual retreat. “Because you voted in 2020, we are removing every lead pipe in our nation … we were able to invest more than $7 billion in our HBCUs.”
Her speech, on the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, went on to tout the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Republican presidential candidates campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, President Joe Biden and Harris are grabbing attention in South Carolina in January.
Biden traveled Monday to Charleston to speak at Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine Black churchgoers were killed by a white supremacist.
And Harris returns to Columbia on Monday to speak at the annual King Day at the Dome festivities hosted by the NAACP South Carolina State Conference.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff traveled to the Lowcountry on Thursday, including a stop at Old Grace Chapel A.M.E. Church in Beaufort.
The efforts are meant to energize Black voters, a demographic that rocketed Biden’s campaign to the Democratic nomination after winning South Carolina’s primary.
These voters will need to be enthusiastic about voting for Biden if he’s going to win a second term in the White House, even as polling indicates Biden has lost some of their support.
It’s one of the demographics the state party wants to energize ahead of the First in the Nation Democratic Presidential Primary on Feb. 3, to boost turnout in a primary Biden is expected to easily win.
In addition to highlighting voters who are Black, live in the South and come from rural areas, having a high turnout for the primary will be another argument, to the Democratic National Committee that the Palmetto State should keep the first spot in the 2028 presidential nominating cycle.
Biden drop in polling
According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released this month, one in five Black voters says they will support a third party candidate in this year’s election. Biden only has support from 63% of Black voters down from the 87% of Black voters in 2020.
A Harris/Messenger poll in November found 59% of Black voters planned to back Biden.
Those numbers could be alarming for the incumbent president, but one Black lawmaker isn’t worried.
State Rep. JA Moore, D-Charleston, is not concerned about the low poll numbers for Biden among Black voters, pointing to how millions if not billions of dollars are spent ahead of an election to gain support. The poll numbers may just be a function of the calendar before full campaigning takes place.
“It’s disingenuous to compare those numbers because you’re talking about at the end of election cycle where at least a billion dollars was spent number one, and hundreds of thousands of hours, hundreds of thousands of doors were knocked, millions of pieces of mail went out, hundreds of thousands of radio ads were done,” Moore said. “We have a whole election cycle to get to that peak.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said Democrats need to do a better job of touting the administration’s accomplishments. She said the party needs to tell it’s story in plain language.
“We don’t need the language of the bureaucracy describing the administration’s accomplishments,” Cobb-Hunter said.
“Democrats we don’t do a good job of tooting our own horn. I think we have allowed Republicans to steal the message,” Cobb-Hunter added. “The stuff that the President has done, we do know about it, but we’ve not done a good job telling people what has been done, number one, and he has just started over the last few months pushing back against Republicans who voted no on all of these spending packages but are back home claiming credit.”
Supporters say they share the concern about messaging to the Black community.
The Rev. William Swinton, the pastor at Ebenezer AME Church in Mount Pleasant, said the administration could do a better job of getting its message out.
“Unfortunately, some media sources tend to be more aggressive in terms of tearing down and accusing and, and blaming,” Swinton said. “And I think sometimes, as Democrats, we tend to just assume that people know what we’re doing, and how we’re helping the country and our communities to be better.”
So that messaging will need to come from other sources, not just through the media, Swinton said.
“We’ve got to get the message out of it personally, in our congregations and our communities in our meetings in our fraternities and sororities,” Swinton said. “I think we’ve got to take some ownership of the message and not allow the media to dominate what needs to be said about our progress or whatever we’re doing in this country.”
Rosa McWhite, 79, of Pamplico, who attended Harris’ speech in Myrtle Beach, said her health care insurance cost has gone down during Biden’s administration, and plans to continue her support.
“I think they’re doing a fantastic job because I follow everything and what the economy is doing. I hear people saying that things are not going well that ‘I don’t have as much money as I should have in my pocket,’” McWhite said. “But I look at the price of gas, that’s down. I look at things that I do that cost less, the investments, I have a few (and) they’re going up … I just know that if what the other party is promising happens, I’m going to be worse off than I am today.”
She added the administration needs to tout accomplishments more as Democratic voters don’t always vote as a bloc.
“If you notice one thing about the Democratic voters they’re not herd followers where the Republicans usually follow suit. If a Republican is doing one thing everyone does it. Democrats have never been like that,” McWhite said.
As Biden and Harris bring their messages to Black voters, they’re painting Republicans as extremists who will only hurt minority communities.
During Biden’s remarks in Charleston, the president touched on how on Jan. 6 one person even carried a Confederate flag while storming the capitol to try to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election.
“We saw something on Jan. 6th we’d never seen before, even during the Civil War,” Biden said. “Insurrectionists waving Confederate flags inside the halls of Congress built by enslaved Americans. A mob attacked and called Black officers, Black veterans defending the nation those vile of racist names.”
Both former Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott were both critical of Biden’s visit.
“Fear is a common denominator in politics. President Biden’s visit to Charleston to stoke fears as his numbers are dropping amongst all minority groups is remarkable,” said Scott, the U.S. Senate’s only Black Republican, in a video released Jan. 8. “But it’s also indicative of the fact that people of color, Americans all across this nation, are losing confidence in this president because the economy is volatile. Crime is raging. Education for the poorest kids in America seems elusive.”
Haley, who is running for the Republican nomination for president and recently was criticized for initially not saying slavery was a cause of the Civil War, used Biden’s visit to point out the president’s past relationships with known segregationists.
“I don’t need someone who palled around with segregationists in the 70s and has said racist comments all the way through his career lecturing me or anyone in South Carolina about what it means to have racism, slavery, or anything related to the Civil War,” Haley said during a recent Fox News town hall.
But, the Biden-Harris campaign says it will push back and is planning ad buys on African American radio, streaming audio, TV and print outlets in the state to communicate with constituencies about what the administration has accomplished and what could occur if the GOP wins the White House.
“Voters of color are the ones who have the most at stake in this election and we need to make sure that every single one of them understands the choice in front of them,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Principal Deputy Campaign Manager Quentin Fulks. “Because while MAGA Republicans push an extreme agenda that would harm communities of color and take our country backwards. President Biden and Vice President Harris have been fighting for policies that will make a real difference in their lives.”
Ensuring high voter turnout in Democratic primary
Biden is widely expected to win the South Carolina Democratic primary even though he has two challengers on the ballot: Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and self-help author Marianne Williamson.
According to an Emerson College Poll of South Carolina Democratic voters, Biden leads with 69% of support in the Palmetto State, Phillips is at 5%. Williamson is at 3%. The poll found 22% of Democratic voters are undecided.
Despite the historic nature of this year’s Democratic primary, perception the result is a foregone conclusion could dampen turnout.
“A low voter turnout doesn’t speak well for continuing to be the first in the nation,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I’m just focused on getting people to want to participate and it’s tough, because people are just turned off.”
Whatever the turnout is Feb. 3, it may be compared to the 2020 South Carolina’s Democratic primary, where 540,000 people participated, according to the State Election Commission.
Cobb-Hunter said it will take more than just the Democratic Party to turnout voters for the primary, saying other groups, such as the progressive network and community-based groups and issue advocacy groups, can help promote turnout.
But South Carolina voters don’t register with political parties and can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary.
Cobb-Hunter said she has spoken to some in Orangeburg County who are considering crossing over to the Republican Primary on Feb. 24 to vote for Haley. Cobb-Hunter said someone had reached out to a woman in a rural part of her district, indicating some sort of organized effort to draw non-Republican voters into the GOP primary.
“There is an effort, I don’t know how widespread it is, but it certainly is one that is being made in my district,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Katina Williams, a 50-year-old customer service representative for a warehousing company, she says she plans on voting in the Democratic primary.
The Black Greenwood woman credits the administration for her helping bring down her health insurance costs for her and her family of four.
She dismisses thoughts of even crossing over to the GOP primary even though Biden is the clear favorite to win the South Carolina Democratic primary.
“There’s nothing over with the Republicans that’s for Katina at this point,” Williams said. “I’m staying with Biden because Biden and that team has what I needed, what I sought for Katina in my household.”
To encourage turnout, the state party is making a six-figure investment in a get out the vote effort. It includes a statewide tour, outreach on college campuses. It’s an effort Democratic Party officials are confident will help keep South Carolina in the lead-off position in 2028, as the Democratic National Committee said it would revisit the primary order every four years.
“I think if you take a look at the track record of the South Carolina Democratic Party in terms of getting voters to the polls and picking the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party, it’s almost second to none,” said DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, a South Carolina native. “I am assured that … we are going to get the turnout necessary to demonstrate to everybody, because we know here in South Carolina, but to demonstrate to the rest of the world that South Carolina is where presidential politics starts from now on.”
But anywhere South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Christale Spain goes, she is ready to repeat the message to Democratic voters that they should not take advantage of the state’s open primary system and vote in the GOP Primary on Feb. 24.
“This is no time to sit on the sidelines of the Democratic primary,” Spain said in a statement. “Freedom and democracy itself are under direct attack from the extreme slate of GOP candidates running for president, including Nikki Haley and Donald Trump, who want to destroy the very foundations of our country. With so much on the line, it’s no exaggeration to say the future of this nation starts in the hands of South Carolinians.”
Spain sometimes is even more direct.
“Make sure you vote in your Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 3. Do not go try to do nothing else,” Spain told attendees at state Sen. Tameika Isaac Devine’s victory party Jan. 2. “Go vote for Democrats on Feb. 3. You’re not helping if you don’t do that.”
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