ROCK HILL, S.C. ― Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren came to historically Black Clinton College in this suburb of Charlotte hoping to woo the voters she needs to complete a coalition that can claim the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: African Americans.
Warren’s slow and steady rise in polling has been largely powered by white voters with college degrees, though more recent polls have shown gains across basically every demographic within the Democratic Party. But one of her biggest rivals for the nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, still has a substantial lead among African American voters nationally and in this crucial state, the first in the south to cast its primary ballots.
Compared to Iowa and New Hampshire ― the overwhelmingly white states that vote first and second in the primary ― Warren has spent little time in South Carolina. A local reporter noted it had been more than a month since her last public event in the state, and a candidate tracker from the Charleston Post and Courier shows her attending just 12 events in the state before Saturday, compared to 17 for Biden, and more than 30 for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the third leading contender for the nomination. (Two African American candidates ― California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ― lead the way with 36 and 39 events, respectively.)
Warren’s supporters in South Carolina say if she picks up her pace in visits to the state, African American voters will embrace her message of battling political corruption and raising taxes on the wealthy to fund universal child care and free public higher education.
“We’re still a high-touch community, even in a high-tech society,” said state Sen. Wendy Brawley, an African American who predicted Warren could win the state. “She gets that she needs to show up where we are.”
Warren’s stop at Clinton College showed the promises and challenges that face the former Harvard Law professor. The crowd of roughly 1,000 people was mostly white, and attendees of all races largely said they arrived at the event already in her corner. Warren’s pitch barely varied from her standard stump speech: She walked voters through her famous policy plans while nearly totally avoiding two hot topics of the day ― the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump and the details of her support for “Medicare for All.” She did note her higher education plan would funnel an additional $50 billion to historically Black colleges like Clinton.
It’s not new for Warren to be courting African Americans. Some Black progressive activists have been raving about her since at least April, and she’s often held listening sessions with Black leaders as she tours the country.
“What I’m doing is showing up and trying to talk to people about why I’m in this fight, what’s broken and how to fix it,” Warren told reporters when asked about the majority-white crowd and what she needed to do to win over Black voters.
But it does appears Warren is ready to invest more time and resources in the state. She’s opening a campaign office in Rock Hill next week, her campaign said. But while the Warren team is eager to talk up the strength of their field operations in Iowa and New Hampshire, they declined to reveal how many staffers are on the ground in the Palmetto State. (In total, Warren has 300 staffers, and 60% of those are in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada.) Biden’s campaign has 41 staffers on the ground here.
Brawley and other Warren backers in the state pointed to two Warren policies they believe could help court Black voters: Her education policies — including the elimination of student debt — could woo younger Black voters, while her proposal to make sure no family spends more than 7% of its income on childcare would attract Black women of all ages.
“In my district, when you have grandparents raising their grands, when you have people working two jobs to keep a roof over their heads, not having childcare is a real issue,” Brawley said. “These are pocketbook issues that really matter, that can change people’s lives if we give them even a little attention.”
Casey McClure, a 26-year-old who said she “loved everything about” Warren, suggested Biden’s lead in the state was due to a generation gap.
“It’s the older voters,” she said, noting she had met Biden during one of his earlier stops in the state. “She needs to get the young people out to vote.”
But there are some signs the gap might be closing. “I love Joe, but he might not be as spunky as he used to,” said McClure’s mother, who declined to give her name.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week saw Warren essentially tied with Biden, and building beyond her base of college-educated white voters. She earned the support of 27% of Democrats and Democratic-learning voters nationally, compared to 25% for the former vice president, and 16% for Sanders. That included a lead among college-educated white voters, liberals, voters aged 35 to 50, and those making more than $50,000 a year. She also tied Biden among white voters without a college degree.
Among white voters overall, Warren led Biden 33% to 23%. But among Black voters, Biden’s advantage was substantial: Forty percent said they support him, while only 19% backed Warren.
That still represents a marked improvement for Warren. In July, the same poll found just 4% of Black voters supported her, while 53% supported Biden.
A CNN poll of South Carolina voters released Sunday morning, however, painted a much grimmer picture for Warren. The poll showed Biden earning 37% of the statewide vote to Warren’s 16%, with Sanders at 11%. Among Black voters, Warren tallied just 4% of the vote compared to Biden’s 45% and Sanders’ 13%.
Biden and his allies have long viewed Black voters as a crucial backstop for his campaign. While Sanders turned in strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016, his campaign floundered as Hillary Clinton, the party’s eventual nominee, routed him among African Americans.
The primary schedule is similar this year. Fourteen states are holding their primaries on March 3, so-called Super Tuesday, when more than 40% of the Democratic delegates are up for grabs. Six of those states, including delegate-rich Texas, are at least 10% Black.
But state Rep. Kambrell Garvin, another Warren backer, suggested Biden and others shouldn’t count on South Carolina’s voters to stay static, and noted the results in Iowa and New Hampshire could sway their votes.
“I know South Carolina for some of the other campaigns is considered to be a firewall state, but I don’t know if that’s a good strategy,” he said. “I think African-American voters are not monolithic, and I think they’re going to make decisions that best suit their community.”
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