Support of SC’s Black voters symbolically important to Biden as campaign looks ahead to swing states
Feb 2, 2024, 10:42 PM
(AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The Democrats’ first primary of the 2024 presidential contest contains little mystery. South Carolina propelled President Joe Biden to the Democratic nomination four years ago and he faces only token opposition when voting concludes Saturday.
What’s at stake for Biden is the depth of support he receives from Black voters. They made up half the party’s primary electorate in the state in 2020 and gave him a resounding victory, a win he rewarded by moving South Carolina to the front of the party’s nominating process. In the general election, Biden was backed by 91% of Black voters nationwide, according to AP VoteCast.
Whether he enjoys a similar level of support this year has implications far beyond South Carolina.
His approval rating among Black adults is 42% in the latest Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, a substantial drop from the first year of his presidency. That’s a potentially troubling sign as he prepares for a rematch against former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner.
Biden will need to energize Black voters in the key swing states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
His campaign is not taking the first primary state for granted. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been visiting in the lead-up to the primary and have promised to keep advocating for the interests of the Black community.
Interviews with a wide array of Democratic-leaning Black voters in three South Carolina cities ahead of Saturday’s primary revealed general support for the president. But they also provided warning signs: Voters want Biden to spell out his priorities for a second term while expressing concerns about his age and how he is handling inflation and the economy.
Younger Black voters said they want Biden to represent their concerns and to see them prioritized if he wins a second term.
Alexandrea B. Moore, a 22-year-old senior at South Carolina State University, said Biden could have been more transparent about the challenges he faced in fulfilling his promise of widespread student loan forgiveness, a plan that ultimately was struck down by the Supreme Court.
“If Biden wants to be able to regain the trust of the U.S. citizens, then there does need to be a little bit of transparency on why things didn’t go the way that they were promised to us,” she said.
Kailyn Wrighten, a 22-year-old senior at South Carolina State, expressed a frustration shared by most younger voters interviewed — that Biden decided to run for reelection rather than make way for a new generation of Democrats.
“This is something we’ve worked up to for 18 years and kind of finally being able to exercise this, and you’re like, ‘This is what I’m left with right now?’” she said.
Biden’s faltering attempts to push a broad plan for student loan forgiveness and his handling of the economy came up repeatedly as top-of-mind issues in interviews with more than a dozen voters.
Sheridan Johnson cast an early vote for Biden in Columbia. She applauded the fact that his administration reduced some loans, but is hoping for more.
“I’m waiting for that to pass because I really need some student loans forgiven,” said Johnson, 53.
Biden’s initial plan was struck down by the Supreme Court. The administration then developed a repayment plan set to take effect this month.
Inflation remains a major concern. While price hikes have cooled in recent months and the economy is growing, that has not had a significant trickle-down effect on Americans’ outlook or benefited Biden.
Laverne Brown, a 69-year-old retiree in Columbia, said Biden needs clear messaging to show voters what he has done to improve the economy and demonstrate “a concern for the working people.”
Age concerns came up frequently in the interviews, and not just among younger voters.
Polling has consistently shown a broad lack of excitement about the prospects for a Biden-Trump rematch. The age of the candidates – Biden is 81, and Trump 77 – is among the top concerns.
“They’re as old as I am, and to have these two guys be the only choices, that’s kind of difficult,” said Charles Trower, a 77-year-old from Blythewood, S.C. “But I would much rather have President Biden than even consider the other guy.”
Some of the nation’s most divisive and personal issues – voting rights, abortion and the overdose epidemic — also were among the top talking points for many of the Black voters interviewed.
Several noted the failure of Democrats to pass voting rights legislation during the first two years of Biden’s presidency as a response to restrictive laws passed by several Republican-controlled states. Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate was not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster.
“Every state in the nation, every territory should be subject to the Voting Rights Act,” said Seth Whipper, 74, a former Democratic state representative who was contacted last week by voting rights activists during a community canvassing event in Charleston. “It’s just that important.”
Biden and Harris have been focusing on the stakes for abortion rights in this year’s election, a message that appeared to resonate with voters.
“I believe they should have a right not to have the government interfere in their lives,” said Tony Thomas, who is 71 and cast his ballot at an early voting site in Columbia.
Fentanyl, which along with other synthetic opioids is the leading culprit in an overdose crisis killing Americans at a record rate, concerns Saundra Trower, a 75-year-old from Blythewood, just outside the state capital.
She wants Biden to figure out how fentanyl is flooding the country and why so many people are addicted.
“That’s the biggest thing for me,” she said. “There are too many young people and even middle-aged people who are dying from fentanyl.”
Emily Swanson, the Associated Press’ director of public opinion research, contributed to this report.
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