Biden heads to South Carolina as he struggles to build Black voter support

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Amid declining support from Black voters, President Joe Biden heads Monday to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of a horrific hate crime in which a white supremacist massacred nine worshippers in 2015 — what his campaign sees as a high-stakes address as he kicks off the election year.

According to his campaign, Biden will warn that MAGA Republicans, led by Donald Trump, are running on a dangerous agenda that is the polar opposite of American principles and will reiterate the stakes of the 2024 election when it comes to democracy and personal freedoms.

The address at the historic church, known as “Mother Emanuel,” comes just days after Biden kicked off the campaign year near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, criticizing Trump for his actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“He’s willing to sacrifice our democracy, put himself in power,” Biden said.

The speech in Charleston will continue to drive that argument, an adviser said, drawing a line between the past and the present with Biden’s choice of the historic venue and linking the church’s history to what he sees as a struggle for the soul of the nation.

“I think it’s important for him to come,” said state Rep. JA Moore, whose sister was among those killed at the church. “We’re at a very critical moment after what Donald Trump has stoked.”

Poll numbers show Biden’s support among Black voters — especially Black men — is slipping dramatically. Biden carried 92% of Black voters in 2020, but recent polling found as many as 20% open to voting for Trump.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement helped catapult Biden to a crucial win in South Carolina’s primary in 2020, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he was “very concerned” about Biden’s standing with Black voters.

“I have no problem with the Biden administration and what it has done,” Clyburn said. “My problem is that we have not been able to break through that MAGA wall in order to get to people exactly what this president has done.”

The frustration among some Black voters started early in the Biden presidency, when Democrats failed to pass voting rights legislation. But the ire has become more pronounced and now threatens to drag down Biden’s re-election bid in 2024.

Nashonda Hunter, 41, said that while she still supports Biden over the alternative, she was disappointed in his administration so far.

“I just feel like it’s been a lot of broken promises,” she said.

She and other Black voters who spoke with NBC News listed student loan debt relief as a top priority. The Supreme Court ruled last summer along ideological lines that the Biden administration overstepped by trying to forgive $400 billion in federal student loans lingering from the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the White House says it has used other methods to cancel student debt for 3.6 million people. But that message hasn’t reached many voters.

Former state Rep. Fletcher Smith, a surrogate for Biden in the 2008 election and again in 2020, stressed that he was frustrated not with the president himself — but with his staff.

“I think part of the problem with that is that the messaging from the White House is not actually resonating in the Black community,” he said. “That administration looks like they don’t want the Black vote.”

Other voters questioned why the Biden administration was so intent on spending billions of dollars overseas in Israel and Ukraine while putting less emphasis on what they see as more pressing domestic priorities. Others said they wanted to see more action on police reform. And some suggested that Biden may have “borrowed” Black support from Barack Obama during his 2020 election win.

“Because he was Barack Obama’s vice president, I think he got a lot of benefit from it,” Smith said. “There are some Barack Obama holdovers in his administration running the Barack Obama playbook. And that’s what’s hurting Biden. Biden needs to get his own playbook.”

There are also questions about whether Biden’s central campaign message about fighting threats to democracy will resonate with voters.

Maurice Washington, a conservative former Charleston County GOP chair, said it was a message of division.

“It has nothing to do with bringing the country together,” he said.

Biden’s campaign has downplayed any waning of support among Black voters and insists Monday’s trip to South Carolina and Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Myrtle Beach on Saturday are not only about courting that key constituency.

The trips “aren’t from a place of worry,” deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said in a call with reporters. “They’re from a place of practicing what we preach.”

Campaign officials stress that Biden prioritized putting South Carolina’s Democratic primary — scheduled for Feb. 3 — first in the nation to involve more people of color in the nominating process. They also point to a large investment in Black and Hispanic media, as well as early organizing efforts meant to communicate to voters of color that they’re the ones that have the most at stake in this election.

“That sends a clear signal that we’re not going to wait and parachute into these communities at the last minute and ask them for their vote,” Fulks said. “We’re going to earn their vote.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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