SC primary illuminates where Biden, Harris stand with Black voters

For the first time, South Carolina will kick off the Democratic presidential primary season in an effort by the party – and urged by President Joe Biden – to center Black voters.

After decades of New Hampshire being the “first in the nation,” the Democratic National Committee voted last year to change its presidential primary calendar to better reflect the diversity of the United States and reward the party’s most loyal voting block.

“This is a really, really big deal. Something that no other president ever had the gumption, or even the notion to modify or change,” Jaime Harrison, chairman of the DNC, told theGrio.  

“This president did, and that’s because he sees Black folks, understands Black folks, and understands that we matter,” he added.

Black South Carolinians, who make up more than 50% of the Democratic Party’s electorate in the state, were consequential to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 win, resurrecting their then-struggling campaign after a critical endorsement by longtime South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn.

Clyburn told theGrio that South Carolina’s new status as the party’s first primary state in the nation “shows that the coalition of voters that Democrats needs to win in November exists in South Carolina.”

As Democratic strategist and Clyburn senior advisor Antjuan Seawright puts it: “The same bloodline of those who once picked cotton will now have the first say so in picking who the leader of our party will be and, ultimately, who the president of the United States will be.”

Seawright said it’s also “ironic” that 40% of enslaved Africans came through South Carolina’s port of Charleston, making this historic primary meaningful for Black voters across the country who are descendants of America’s enslaved ancestors. 

Black voters across the nation played an outsized role in the historic election of Biden and Harris, so much so that Biden specifically thanked Black voters during his victory speech, telling them, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

Voters cast their ballots in the Kentucky gubernatorial race at the Shelby Traditional Academy on November 7, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Nearly four years later, however, polling and anecdotal opinions of the Biden-Harris administration’s performance suggest some Black voters are less enthusiastic about the president and vice president’s reelection. A January ABC/Washington Post poll found that Biden’s approval rating was 21 points below average among Black voters. 

Polling shows that Black voters remain concerned about the economy, and younger Black voters have expressed disapproval of the Biden-Harris administration’s response to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, which has led to the death of more than 25,000 Palestinians. 

In addition to making key hires and ramping up ad buys to message Black voters about what Biden has done for them, the Biden-Harris campaign has deployed its surrogates to communicate what they feel is a long list of accomplishments being overshadowed by disinformation.

“It’s important for us to make sure that people understand and that he gets credit,” Harrison said. He noted President Biden issued $1,400 stimulus checks to eligible households during the pandemic, increased funding for needed benefit programs like rental assistance and food stamps, and paused student loan payments.

Harrison said when President Biden moved to cancel student loan debt for millions of Americans, Republicans sued the administration over the program, which was struck down by the “right-wing” Supreme Court. 

“But Joe Biden still found a way to give people student loan relief,” said the party chairman, referring to the Biden-Harris administration’s cancellation of $137 billion for borrowers largely working in public service. 

Seawright, the Democratic strategist, noted that the Black unemployment rate reached its lowest level under Biden and that more Black entrepreneurs have started businesses following “a resilient economy that keeps roaring back” due to the president’s economic policies.

“Joe Biden has been the most consequential president from a legislative perspective for African Americans in modern-day history,” he argued. Biden has passed “a legislative agenda that speaks to generational neglect for African Americans,” Seawright said. “I don’t think you can say anything, but job well done.”

South Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman Christale Spain, the first Black woman elected as the state’s party leader, told theGrio that she and party leaders have worked to remind Black voters in the Palmetto State what the Biden-Harris administration has done to repair historical harms to their communities, including the cleaning up of decaying and contaminated pipes. 

“That’s because of Biden, not because of the mayor, not because of the governor…investing in the South Carolina infrastructure,” she said. “Republicans have been in control here for decades, and they’re allowing it to crumble.”

DNC Chairman Harrison said Biden’s reforming of marijuana convictions, executive order banning police chokeholds in the absence of Congress passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and record appointment of Black judges to the federal bench are also critical efforts to safeguard Black communities from decades of abuse by the criminal justice system.

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) greets Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at the organization’s summer meeting on September 8, 2022, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The primary vote in South Carolina is more symbolic than it is consequential. Spain highlighted that there is no benchmark for the success of the Biden-Harris campaign in the state, considering Biden is an incumbent president in a contested, non-competitive race.

Clyburn told theGrio, “There’s no real sense of urgency in this primary, so you’re not going to get a big turnout.”

Whatever the outcome, Biden will most certainly come out on top. However, Democrats say the president and vice president’s visit to South Carolina gives them an early start in highlighting the issues important to Black communities in the state and subsequently across the country. The campaign plans to take that message to key battleground states with a significant Black electorate, like Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. 

“So much has been done under this administration in three years,” said Harrison, adding, “He’s been able to do it with far less support in the House and the Senate.”

While the primary season is just kicking off, the campaign is already focused on what political experts believe is the inevitable rematch between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, the likely 2024 Republican nominee. 

Clyburn said he plans to hit the campaign trail to remind Black voters of Trump’s record on race, including taking out a 1989 newspaper ad calling for the death penalty of five Black and brown teens known then as the Central Park Five and launching the racist “birther movement” that suggested America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, was not a U.S. citizen. 

In contrast to the achievements of Biden, the congressman said, “Nobody can point to one single thing of substance that Trump has ever done to address a single problem that exists in the African-American community.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at the Fort Dodge Senior High School on November 18, 2023 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

While campaigning in South Carolina, President Biden mentioned Trump’s infamous comment that there were “good people on both sides” after a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly and how the incident propelled him to run for president in 2020. 

Democrats tell theGrio contrasting Trump and Biden as it relates to the former president’s embracing of white supremacist ideology and white nationalist groups will be important in reminding Black voters, well beyond South Carolina, what’s at stake. 

“This is a man who believes in chipping away and taking away the freedoms and the rights of the American people. We saw it in terms of January 6 … in essence, trying to take away the votes that so many of us passed in that election,” Harrison said

“We’ve seen him rip away the right and the freedom of women to control their own bodies. We hear it in his rhetoric when he says that immigrants are poisoning the blood of America.”

Spain, the South Carolina Democratic Party chair., said. “I think that does resonate with Black voters, especially Black voters in South Carolina.”

She added, “To be reminded that Donald Trump celebrates our oppression and celebrates our enslavement, and they want to erase it and pretend like it didn’t happen… I do believe it matters tremendously.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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The Democratic National Committee has changed the primary calendar to make South Carolina the first state to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, reflecting the importance of Black voters to the party. Black South Carolinians were influential in the 2020 election, and the move to prioritize their voices in the primary reflects the party’s commitment to them. The Biden-Harris administration has made efforts to address historical injustices and support Black communities, but polling suggests that some Black voters are less enthusiastic about their performance. Despite this, the administration is working to communicate their accomplishments and engage Black voters. The primary vote in South Carolina is more symbolic than consequential, but it allows the campaign to focus on key issues important to Black communities and highlight contrasts with former President Trump’s record on race. The campaign is already looking ahead to a potential rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024, and the contrast between the two presidents’ approaches to race and Black communities will be an important factor for Black voters in the upcoming election.

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