Voters in South Carolina are headed to the polls Saturday to cast the first official votes in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, registering their preferences in a primary that President Biden is widely expected to win easily.
For the first time, South Carolina is at the top of the Democratic nominating calendar, moving ahead of two states with considerably less racial diversity. The state was pivotal to Biden’s 2020 nomination, and leapfrogged Iowa and New Hampshire at the behest of the president and his allies.
The incumbent’s campaign hopes a successful showing springboards his campaign in the states ahead with a show of strength and quashes intraparty doubts about some polling that has shown him trailing former president Donald Trump in a potential general-election matchup. Saturday’s vote will also provide a measure of Biden’s standing among Black voters, who helped propel Biden to victory and made up 56 percent of Democratic primary participants in the state four years ago, according to exit polls.
Seeking to counter a decline in approval for the president among some Black voters, the Biden campaign has underscored actions the administration has taken to help benefit Black communities. But some concerns about struggles to overhaul policing laws and protect voting rights remain a hurdle, operatives say.
In recent weeks, Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Harris campaigned in the state and made the case the administration has prioritized affordability, such as cutting the price of insulin; driven Black unemployment rates down to the lowest level in history; and contrasted sharply with a Trump presidency that they have argued would threaten Social Security and health care through the Affordable Care Act.
Biden told the audience at South Carolina’s First in the Nation Dinner last Saturday that voters in the state are well positioned as the first state to award Democratic delegates to “finish what we started.”
“The truth is I wouldn’t be here without the Democratic voters of South Carolina, and that’s a fact,” he said to applause from the mostly Black audience. “So, I want to start with a very simple message: From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) and self-help author Marianne Williamson, two long shots, have challenged the incumbent, in part arguing that they would be better positioned compared with Biden to take on Trump, but the rivals have yet to make a dent in Biden’s firm Democratic support. They are not expected to find a large share of Democrats looking for an alternative in a state where Biden has the backing of longtime Democratic leaders, including Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison. Phillips acknowledged his long-shot odds and said he plans to focus his efforts in Michigan, the next state he’s on the primary ballot, where Arab and college-aged communities have expressed some concerns about Biden.
“Some of you might be wondering why this White, Jewish boy from the frozen tundra of Minnesota would be appearing in a state in which 95 percent of you will be voting for Joe Biden, including most of you in this room,” Phillips told the same audience Biden addressed last Saturday. “I’m just here to tell you that I’m here to help us win.”
The room’s tepid response to Phillips — who at one point asked audience members who were not seated while he was speaking to pay attention — reflected his struggles to gain any traction in his challenge against Biden. Phillips spent the past week traveling to California and Texas to fundraise and in Washington for official duties, according to senior campaign adviser Jeff Weaver, who called South Carolina “Biden country.”
Democrats close to Biden pointed to the president’s win in New Hampshire’s unsanctioned primary on Jan. 23, where he got about 64 percent of the vote despite not being on a ballot or campaigning in the state, far ahead of Phillips, who spent months in the Granite State and received less than 20 percent. (The DNC has said it will not seat New Hampshire delegates at the convention because the state ignored the party’s new nominating schedule that put South Carolina first.) Clyburn told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he was watching for a wide margin of victory for Biden.
“I want to get at least 69 or 70 percent in South Carolina, beat that number he got when his name was not on the ballot,” Clyburn said, referring to the New Hampshire victory.
Biden visited the state two weekends in a row, speaking at Black churches, including Mother Emanuel AME, the historic Black church in Charleston where a white supremacist killed nine people. On Friday, Harris, who traveled to South Carolina three times since the start of the year, promised students at South Carolina State University that she and Biden would continue to work toward relieving more student debt and protecting reproductive rights, blaming Republicans for stymieing the administration and not representing the interests of Black college students.
“Do we want to live in a country of liberty, freedom and rule of law?” she asked. “Or a country of disorder, fear and hate?”
On Saturday, Biden is traveling to Los Angeles for a campaign event with Black entertainment executives, while Phillips will be in Washington and New York.
The state’s Democrats have phone-banked and hosted get-out-the-vote events to remind voters that their participation in the primary would send signals that they deserve their first-in-the-nation status and are enthusiastic. South Carolina Democrat Party Chair Christale Spain said she doesn’t want voters to feel like “it’s a given” and there’s no need to vote.
“Us being first, it’s a big deal,” Spain said. “And we’ve taken it very seriously. We’ve gone above and beyond to make sure that our voters know what’s at stake this election.”
Voters can choose to participate in either party’s primary in South Carolina, with the Republican contest scheduled for later this month. Some Democratic voters said they are considering casting a ballot for former South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley, who is far behind Trump.
Some Democratic voters told The Post that they ultimately felt like Biden provides the best chance to defeat Trump, pointing to how Biden won in 2020.
When Rose Marie Holman, a 76-year-old Charleston voter, listened to Phillips speak at a Democratic event in November, she nodded along as he spoke about the need for new faces in their party. But Holman ultimately cast an early ballot for Biden because she thinks he has the best chance of protecting democracy, a top concern of hers.
“I’m going to stick where I feel comfortable right now,” she said.
Rev. Thaddeus Smith, who plans to vote for Biden, said he’s heard from other young people that they want to see Biden do more to extend student loan relief, lower housing costs, encourage a cease-fire in Gaza and legalize marijuana. But Smith has told them that neither Trump nor Haley would be any better.
“I’m encouraging people to go out and vote for the Biden administration,” Smith said, “because does the alternative outweigh him not being elected to a second term?”
Michael Scherer, Tyler Pager, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.