CHARLESTON, South Carolina ‒ It was late one recent afternoon when Charlea Bing eyed a man standing outside a shopping plaza in North Charleston. She stepped up her pace, hurrying towards him waving a flyer.
“Excuse me, sir! Excuse me, brother,’’ she called out as she held tight to the rest of her papers. “Can I talk to you?”
The 22-year-old junior from Florida A&M University rattled off details about voter education sessions happening just a few miles away. Bing invited the stranger to come on out, then continued with a reminder: Don’t forget to vote.
“Your vote matters,’’ she told him. She repeated it to the next shopper and the next. “Come out. For real.”
Bing and dozens of other college students fanned out across the shopping center last week handing out flyers and urging shoppers to vote in the state’s Democratic Party primary on Saturday.
President Joe Biden is expected to easily win the national party’s first primary of the 2024 elections. But how well he energizes Black voters in South Carolina could forecast how he might fare elsewhere and what more he has to do to win over key supporters, experts said.
“South Carolina sends a message,’’ said Larry Watson, a history professor at South Carolina State University. “It sets the tone for other states that have significant Democratic voters … that we need to be really involved in the process, that you need to go to the polls and get your voices heard.”
In a sign of the importance of turning out Black voters in South Carolina, high-profile Black politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris, congressional lawmakers and even cabinet secretaries have stumped across the state showing up at Black sorority galas, historic churches, MLK Day events and last week’s state Democratic Party “First in the Nation’’ celebration.
South Carolina’s voters, particularly its Black voters, are credited with reviving Biden’s struggling campaign in the 2020 primary, sending him on to victories in other states and a win in the general election.
Again this year, the Palmetto State is crucial as Biden faces polls showing his support waning among Black voters.
Much of the get-out-the-vote efforts in South Carolina have been led by grassroots groups from inside and outside the state.
For months, local activists have called neighbors and friends urging them to vote, while some faith leaders included those pleas in their sermons. Last week, the civic engagement group Black Voters Matter launched a national get-out-the-vote campaign called “We Fight Back’’ in South Carolina, hosting a three-day conference in North Charleston that attracted more than 300 activists from colleges and national organizations.
South Carolina is the first of many primaries in what promises to be a brutal presidential rematch against former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee, so it’s important to rev up voters, said Eric Manning, pastor of the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
“It’s going to take some time to really energize folks,’’ Manning said. “You must try. There is too much at stake to do nothing.”
Why South Carolina matters to Biden
Biden visited the state twice last month, repeatedly thanking Black voters for their support in 2020, which gave his campaign much needed momentum going into Super Tuesday. Spurred by the coveted endorsement of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), South Carolina delivered then.
“You’re the reason I’m president. You are the reason Kamala Harris is a storied vice president and you are the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president,” Biden told the crowd Saturday at a state Democratic Party event. “You are the reason Donald Trump is a loser, and you’re the reason we’re going to win and beat him again.”
National Democrats moved South Carolina’s primary up to the nation’s first official contest in part because it has a diverse population. Black people make up nearly 30% of the state’s population. By comparison, New Hampshire, which had been first, is nearly 93% white.
The state of New Hampshire decided to keep its first-in-the-nation primary, albeit without the Biden’s blessing, and the President won it on Jan. 24 with a write-in effort, though his name did not appear on the ballot.
Clyburn, one of the highest-ranking African Americans in Congress, has repeatedly said he had nothing to do with pushing for South Carolina to have the first primary. He preferred its long-time position, which he likened to a cleanup batter. “We cleaned up a lot of mess,’’ Clyburn said.
Still, for the first time South Carolina is officially first and national Democrats and civic engagement groups are spending millions of dollars on get-out-the-vote efforts here.
While Black voters are not a monolith, they have traditionally supported Democratic candidates. Biden credits them, not only in South Carolina, but in places like Georgia and Pennsylvania, with helping him win the presidency four years ago.
Lay of the land is different in 2024
This year, polls, including one from USA Today, show some Black voters aren’t as excited about a Biden bid. Some young voters of color are upset Biden hasn’t called for a cease-fire in the Israeli/Hamas war, in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed or injured.
In a Pew Research Center survey released in mid-January, nearly half of Black voters approved of Biden’s job performance and about the same number disapproved.
Clyburn tamped down expectations for high Black voter turnout this year. Four years ago the Democratic field was more crowded, there was a global pandemic and the country was engulfed in social unrest.
“The lay of the land is a little bit different (now),’’ Clyburn said.
Watson said a low turnout could signal apathy among Black voters.
“It sends a message of hopelessness, that we don’t think it makes any difference,’’ said Watson, also an adjunct at the University of South Carolina. “We can’t afford to give up.”
Outsiders come in to help
By 9 a.m. last Thursday, Bing and about 25 other students from colleges across the country had taken their seats in a conference room in North Charleston, listening as experts explained voting systems.
The students, sporting black T-shirts that read “Take the Field,’’ scribbled notes and peppered speakers with questions:
“How does this impact communities of color?”
“How will it be implemented?”
During a break in the daylong training, students, in an impromptu move, clapped and waved their hands as they sang, “Melodies from Heaven,’’ a gospel song.
An afternoon session focused on tips for canvassing in their neighborhoods and at their schools. They put the lessons into practice at the nearby shopping center.
Some like Bing, of Tampa, had worked on campaigns on their campuses and in their communities. Bing and others took off a week from classes to attend the training sessions.
“I just feel called to do it,’’ said Bing, who is majoring in African American studies. “It feels like it’s the right thing to do.”
She acknowledged it’s harder to convince people to vote than in 2020.
“People need to be inspired,’’ Bing said. “People are not going to get up and be like, ‘I just want to vote today,’ because there are so many different things withholding us from wanting to do that.”
Stars come out for South Carolina
Eager to justify their choice of South Carolina to hold the first contest, the Democratic National Committee and the Biden reelection campaign are working overtime to turn out Black voters in the uncompetitive primary.
Harris has visited South Carolina three times since the start of the year, including a Friday trip to Orangeburg, a small town 90 minutes northwest of Charleston. First lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff have also campaigned in the state.
Harris marked the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol with remarks in Myrtle Beach at an African Methodist Episcopal Church women’s society retreat. She returned to South Carolina on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 15, to speak at an NAACP event at the state capital. She also visited a local barbecue joint and dropped in on the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team while in the city.
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Watson said Harris, a graduate of Howard University, a historically Black school in Washington, D.C., is popular in the state in part because many Black voters identify with her. He said some also look to her as a role model.
“It speaks to the strength of Black womanhood and I think that’s something else that plays well,’’ he said.
Other Democratic leaders, including potential 2028 presidential candidates, have also flocked to the state to campaign for the Biden/Harris ticket, such as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said the party’s focus on South Carolina, a red state that’s all but certain to back Biden’s GOP opponent in the general election, reflects the Democratic Party’s “mission to invest in the backbone of our party.”
“For far too long, the voices of voters of color have been sidelined or silenced — but we’re putting in the work and making early investments to ensure they have a seat at the head of the table,” Harrison, a former South Carolina party chair, said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Clyburn, co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, has led the charge across the state.
Recently, as a political editor at the Post and Courier, a local newspaper, asked questions, Clyburn rested his right arm on the table, pushed up his glasses and ran down Biden’s achievements: reducing childhood poverty, eliminating $137 billion in student debt, successfully pushing for a bipartisan infrastructure bill and reducing the high costs of insulin for seniors.
“The things that we’ve been telling people about what they can expect to see from Joe Biden, they’re beginning to see it,’’ Clyburn later told USA TODAY. “They’ve been hearing it for a long time and now they’re beginning to feel it.”
Diversity of opinions
But not all Black voters are feeling it.
Marcus McDonald, 27, a lead organizer for Charleston Black Lives Matter, criticized Biden’s inability to better protect Palestinians, along with the lack of affordable housing, the high price of groceries and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund never-ending wars in other places, while Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
“Overall, people are less enthused and more like okay, ‘Here we go again stuck between two evils,’’’ McDonald said, referring to the expected choice in November between Biden and Trump. “That inevitability is just pressing on folks. A lot of young people are just disengaged and shell shocked.”
McDonald said his group is working on get-out-the-vote campaigns, mostly focused on local elections and urging people to be civically engaged well beyond Election Day.
He’s leaning toward supporting independent presidential candidate Cornel West, but said many people won’t make up their minds about who to support until later in the year.
Biden’s “still got time to do something,’’ McDonald said.
Motivating locals to get to the polls
Bernice Scott leaned on her kitchen counter in Hopkins, South Carolina, flipped through her composition book where she had jotted down phone numbers, then tapped the screen on her cell phone.
Within seconds, she was chatting with a local pastor.
“I want everybody to get everybody out,’’ Scott, 79, said into the phone. “We need to keep our good people in office.”
Steps away in Scott’s sunroom, members of the Reckoning Crew, a coalition of local activists, mostly Black women, were also busy calling others. Some sat in white rocking chairs, holding tight to their phone lists.
Outside on the porch, some sat on folding chairs, only a few feet from a pen with goats.
“I’m just calling to remind you about early voting,’’ said one.
“You know we’re voting on the 3rd in the Democratic primary,’’ another said. “Okay. All right. Have a nice day.”
For hours one recent afternoon, nearly a dozen members of the Reckoning Crew, sported matching aqua-colored T-shirts as they called neighbors, friends, strangers and pastors.
The volunteers came from nearby communities like St. Matthews, Columbia and Eastover. Many had been working together for nearly three decades on issues from housing to voting. With a week until the primary, they were in high gear.
“We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to rock,’’ said Jeannette Wilson, 79, of Kingville. “That’s our job as community workers to motivate people to vote.”
Scott said the task can be challenging at times because some people, particularly in rural communities, feel like they’re being left out or worse ‒ ignored. She said groups like hers are trusted in the community so members work to explain that voting matters.
“We complain about what we don’t have, but what we do have is one vote,’’ she said. “We have to show up and show out.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden needs Black voters to ‘show up and show out’ in South Carolina
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