United States President Joe Biden has been campaigning in South Carolina like his political life depends on it. Longtime analysts say it might.
Despite being all but assured of winning the state’s Democratic primary on February 3, Biden has made South Carolina a focal point of his early reelection efforts, in an attempt to recapture the momentum he enjoyed in the last presidential race.
But to do that, experts say he has to show that he has delivered for the state’s Black residents, who comprise an estimated 26 percent of the population. South Carolina’s Black voters lean overwhelmingly Democratic: The Pew Research Center found that 78 percent identify with the party.
Biden, however, has seen his support slump across the board, including among Black voters nationwide. Experts warn those drooping poll numbers could spell trouble in November’s general election, where Biden is expected to face former President Donald Trump once again in a tight race.
Lawrence Moore, the chair of Carolina for All, a social justice organisation in South Carolina, said Biden needs to find a way to excite Black voters about the policy gains made during his tenure.
“We don’t have a person like (Barack) Obama” on the ballot, Moore explained, referencing the US’s first Black president, a charismatic figure who inspired historic voter turnout among minorities in 2008 and 2012.
“Nobody’s tripping over themselves to vote for Biden”, he said, “so it will have to be about the issues”.
South Carolina ‘the reason’ for Biden’s presidency
South Carolina first emerged as a pivotal battleground for Biden in the 2020 primary season, when he was one candidate in a packed field of Democratic hopefuls.
At the time, Biden’s campaign appeared to be sputtering to an ignominious conclusion. He placed a dismal fourth in the Iowa caucuses, then slipped to fifth in the New Hampshire primary.
Media outlets had already begun to write him off as a “distant also-ran”.
But that year’s fourth primary contest — South Carolina — would turn Biden’s hopes around. He rocketed to first place, scoring 48 percent of the vote, far out of reach of his next closest rival, Bernie Sanders, at 19 percent.
Biden’s resounding victory in the state sent his idling campaign into overdrive and solidified his standing as the party’s nominee-apparent. Biden acknowledged as much at a January event hosted by the South Carolina Democratic Party.
“You’re the reason I am president,” Biden said bluntly. “You’re the reason Kamala Harris is a historic vice president. And you’re the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president.”
Much of the credit for Biden’s dramatic turnaround fell to South Carolina’s Black community. A Washington Post exit poll found Black primary voters favoured Biden over Sanders by about four to one — a significantly wider margin than he had among white voters.
Primary switch-up emphasises diversity
South Carolina has since taken a more prominent place in the Democratic primary calendar.
Last year, the Democratic National Committee approved a plan to make South Carolina its first contest of the primary season, citing the fact that the state is more representative of the country’s diversity than traditional early-voting states like Iowa or New Hampshire.
Biden himself pushed for the switch-up. “For decades, Black voters, in particular, have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” he wrote in support of the change.
LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, said her group was likewise concentrating on South Carolina to kick off its nationwide voter mobilisation drive.
“By starting in South Carolina, we wanted to lift up the significance of Black voters not just in the state but in the nation,” she told Al Jazeera.
But Brown warned that voter turnout might be depressed by a sense of disenchantment with this year’s slate of candidates.
“Across the board, people are frustrated with traditional politics,” she said.
Already, poll numbers indicate less momentum for Biden than he had four years ago. A December poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs showed just 50 percent of Black adults said they approved of Biden, down from 86 percent in July 2021.
A recent NBC News poll echoed that finding. Biden’s net approval rating among Black voters tumbled nearly 20 points last year, down to 61 percent.
A ‘historic lag’ in outreach
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the left-leaning Working Families Party, which endorsed Biden in 2020, credits the drop in support to a “historical lag” in the Democrats’ campaign machinery.
He explained that Black voters are often seen as a sure thing for Democrats and are therefore not courted in the same way as white or independent voters.
Democratic officials, he added, “have not appreciated the work that needs to be done if Black voters are to turn out at the scale that you want them to”.
Mitchell called on Democrats to make “a more intentional, explicit appeal to the broader range of issues that Black Americans are facing every single day”.
“It’s not relegated simply to, like, criminal justice and civil rights,” he said.
By way of example, Mitchell pointed to the growing outrage over Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed more than 26,900 Palestinians so far.
Polls have shown widespread discontent over the war and Biden’s unequivocal support for Israel. A higher percentage of Black voters support a full ceasefire in Gaza compared with white Americans, Mitchell noted.
“The issue is a relatively new dimension in the race but one that’s pretty salient, especially with young voters of all races,” he said.
Preaching politics at the pulpit
Biden attempted to appeal to Black voters earlier this month with a visit to the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Gothic-style church, with its white steeple and towering stained glass, is a site of great significance for the Black community: It was founded by Denmark Vesey, a celebrated Black leader who was killed in 1822 after allegations emerged that he was planning a rebellion against slavery.
One of the oldest Black churches in the US South, Mother Emanuel was also the site of a racist mass shooting in 2015 that killed nine worshippers.
Standing at the pulpit on January 8, Biden became the first sitting president to address the church as a candidate. He started his speech with a bowed head, acknowledging how the “poison” of “white supremacy” had touched the church.
But Biden proceeded to play up his platform, touting the country’s economic gains, lowered Black unemployment and his efforts to build clean energy, strengthen Medicare and protect voting access. He also reiterated his gratitude to the largely Black audience.
“It’s because of this congregation and the Black community of South Carolina — no exaggeration — and (Representative) Jim Clyburn that I stand here today as your president,” Biden said to a peal of applause. “That’s a fact. And I owe you.”
But Maurice Washington, who served as the first Black chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, questioned whether Biden’s messaging to Black voters has been too narrow and too focused on race.
“Things like white supremacy and voter suppression, those kinds of race-based narratives are no longer working,” Washington said.
He too credited Biden’s dipping poll numbers among Black voters to a lack of emphasis on the economic hurdles they face.
“That percentage drop is Black Americans who are truly taking a look at the bottom line where $100 is bringing home less groceries, $20 is putting less gas in the car, healthcare costs are up, interest rates are up,” he said.
Biden camp: ‘No administration has done as much’
For its part, Biden’s team has made efforts to show his administration is addressing both civil rights issues and economic ones.
Quentin Fulks, the principal deputy campaign manager for the Biden campaign, told ABC’s This Week in January that he hopes to send two messages to the Black community.
“One, we don’t take them for granted,” he said. “Two, we recognise that we need to earn their support in this campaign.”
In October, the campaign launched a national television advertisement touting the Biden administration’s support for Black farmers, a historically overlooked group. Months earlier, the Biden administration had announced plans to provide $5.3bn to farmers who had faced past discrimination in federal lending programmes.
The Biden campaign has also highlighted “historic” multi-billion dollar investments in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
And in a December speech, Biden said he oversaw the “fastest growth in Black business ownership in over 30 years” and a 60-percent jump in Black wealth since the days of the pandemic lockdown.
“No administration has done as much for the African American community as President Biden and Vice President Harris,” Fulks told ABC’s This Week.
South Carolina voters see ‘no real change’
But voters will turn out based on their “lived experience, not on the messaging”, according to Catherine Fleming Bruce, a South Carolina activist who ran for the Senate as a Democrat.
“You may have people knocking on your door and phone calls and text messages and all of these things,” she said. “But these are things voters have seen before, and many feel like there’s no real change.”
Bruce personally gave Biden mixed marks on his policies so far. She applauded his appointment of the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
But she questioned his failure to engage meaningfully with issues like criminal justice reform, gun control and reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black people.
Meanwhile, Biden’s struggle to pass a new voting rights act — one that would safeguard against discriminatory practices — has hit close to home for South Carolina voters.
Black voters and the state conference of the NAACP, a civil rights organisation, are challenging Republican-drawn congressional districts, arguing the new map intentionally dilutes their voting power.
“There has been a lot of disappointment on voting rights,” Bruce said, referencing Biden’s failed efforts to limit gerrymandering and ease election access.
“Those kinds of protections — we really spent a lot of time fighting for and that did not come to fruition.”
South Carolina a bellwether for the US South
Experts say Biden’s true test may ultimately not come in party primaries like South Carolina’s, but rather in November’s general elections.
As a rematch with Trump looms, Mitchell from the Working Families Party warned that any dent in the “diverse coalition” of voters Biden relied on in 2020 could determine whether he wins or loses in 2024.
“When you think about each segment of the coalition — young people or Black voters or Muslim-American voters in Michigan — each one of those pieces of the coalition were essential to the victory,” he said. “Both their presence in the coalition and the rate at which they turned out to vote.”
If 2020 is a harbinger of this year’s presidential election, the race could come down to just a few key battleground states where Biden’s ability to turn out Black voters proved to be a key factor, Mitchell said.
Those states include Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and, perhaps most notably, South Carolina’s southern neighbour Georgia.
The US South has leaned to the right since the 1960s, in large part as a reaction to the country’s civil rights movement. But in 2020, Biden notched a razor-thin victory in Georgia, winning by just under 12,000 votes out of the nearly 5 million cast.
Black voters, who make up a third of the electorate in Georgia, were credited with tipping the scales. Biden’s win in the state was the first by a Democrat since 1992.
South Carolina has an even longer history of tilting rightward: The last time a majority of its voters backed a Democrat for president was in 1976, nearly 48 years ago. Experts acknowledge it is unlikely Biden will flip the state in 2024.
Still, the turnout at the state’s primary may serve as a bellwether for Black support in the US South overall. Biden faces two distant challengers — Congress member Dean Phillips and author Marianne Williamson — in Saturday’s party race.
Brown, the Black Voters Matter co-founder, described the early primary season as an opportunity for Biden to better attune to Black voters both in South Carolina and beyond.
“This is the time to learn and to listen to the voters and to really shape yourself as a North Star,” she said. “And it starts with South Carolina.”