At a downtown restaurant — amid the noise of silverware clinking, servers taking orders and diners chatting — Denae Pearson stared intently at a television screen where a defining moment of the first round of Democratic presidential primary debates was unfolding.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California was calling out former Vice President Joe Biden for his opposition to integrating Delaware schools through the practice of busing. Biden was a U.S. senator from that state at that time, the 1970s.
A black woman who benefited from busing in California as a young girl, Harris put Biden on the defensive: “That little girl was me,” she said in a line now emblazoned on her campaign T-shirts along with her childhood photo.
The confrontation was riveting political theater to the dozens, including Pearson, who had gathered for the debate watch party. Among political observers, it was billed as a breakout moment for Harris that helped boost her poll numbers nationally and in Iowa, whose voters will be first to weigh in on the Democratic primary, in which 24 candidates are seeking the nomination.
For Biden, the perceived front-runner, the moment spelled trouble, with those same national pundits speculating Harris’ performance could peel away Biden’s black voter support.
But on that night, Pearson — whose parents went to segregated schools — was still with Biden: the man she met a week before at U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” who impressed her with his stance on health care.
“I support him,” said the 34-year-old Columbia resident. “I am a black woman. I get where he’s coming from.”
Pearson is not unique among the black S.C. voters who spoke to The State for this report.
Over the past month, The State conducted 38 formal interviews and had nearly a dozen more conversations with black S.C. voters, Democratic leaders and political experts to test the assumption — fueled by early polls and pushed by national media — that Biden is the favorite to win South Carolina’s pivotal presidential primary.
The State asked 29 black S.C. voters which candidates they planned to vote for in the state’s first-in-the-South primary, including eight public figures and civic leaders. Reporters also interviewed five black elected officials from outside South Carolina with ties to southern constituencies, two black Democratic activists and two political scientists who have studied black voting patterns.
Nationally, a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Biden slipping: while four out of 10 black voters supported Biden before the debate during which he clashed with Harris, in a post-debate poll only two in 10 said they would pick him. No polls so far, however, have definitively measured how the candidates are doing among black voters in South Carolina.
Both Biden and Harris are set to visit the state this weekend for the first time since the June 27 debate, which will provide a glimpse into how voters now feel about the contenders.
Still, though far from definitive, The State’s interviews give strong insight into the attitudes toward Biden driving his support among black S.C. voters, who make up more than 60% of the Democratic electorate.
Unsurprisingly, The State found black S.C. voters are far from monolithic regarding their political views and preferred candidates. At the same time, for the many who said they were supporting or leaning toward Biden, their explanations shared many similarities.
Even as Biden’s record on race complicates his standing among black voters nationally, many African Americans across generations in South Carolina told The State they do not associate themselves with the criticism the former vice president has received.
They said enthusiasm for Biden’s candidacy derives from a combination of strategic thinking about who can beat President Donald Trump and a deep emotional connection to the man who served alongside Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.
And older black voters said they trust Biden to unite the country. If they turn out in large numbers next year — as they did in 2016, when the over-45 age bracket represented more than 70% of those participating in the S.C. Democratic presidential primary — that sensibility could prevail.
Here is a deeper look at what The State found, in voters’ own words.
In South Carolina, many black Democrats leaning toward Biden worry his inability to confront critics could turn off undecided voters.
“He will definitely sabotage his efforts,” Craig Khanwell, 53, who also attended last month’s debate watch party, told The State. He was eyeing Biden among others, including Harris and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“The black electorate is becoming more and more enlightened to their own self interests in South Carolina now,” Khanwell continued. “It’s not like in the past when you had a few black leaders, or black politicians or black preachers who can tell black people how to vote. That’s just not going to happen in this election.”
Prominent backers of other candidates, particularly supporters of Harris, see an opportunity to convert voters to their side.
“Joe Biden’s supporters are extremely soft, extremely fluid and can go to other people,” argued CNN contributor and former Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Denmark native who has endorsed Harris. “You see how well he’s performing among African American women. As Kamala Harris continues to plow that ground, a lot of people will migrate in (her) direction.”
Prior to the debate, Biden raised eyebrows when he bragged about working with pro-segregationist senators as proof he’s a consensus builder. Yet again and again, voters told The State the comments were not deal-breakers in whether to give Biden their support.
“Nobody’s clean,” Debora Hayes, of Columbia, said last month while waiting outside the fish fry gates to see Biden. “They are going to find something on everybody at some point.”
Biden’s comments “weren’t (offensive) to me,” said York resident Joyce Wilson, 53, who recently was still deciding between Biden, Harris and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “(But) the news media just beat it, beat it, beat it and that kind of thing will cause divisiveness.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential Orangeburg Democrat who doesn’t endorse in primaries, said she offered Biden unsolicited advice that he should apologize for his controversial remark.
“I was not offended by it, but there are some who were, and so what’s the big deal?” Cobb-Hunter told The State at the Democratic party’s state convention. “If enough people say, ‘Look, your remarks were insensitive and show a lack of awareness,’ then I think it would be appropriate for him to say, ‘I’m sorry. My remarks were not taken as I intended.’”
Clyburn, the state’s most influential Democrat, said it was not surprising that many black S.C. voters are either standing by Biden or unfazed by his comments.
In South Carolina, a state with a painful history of racial violence, older African Americans remember a time when politicians like Biden were few and far between, Clyburn explained — white politicians who, while maybe flawed, were seen as sympathetic to the African American cause of civil rights and strove to do the right thing.
“The black community, as a whole, has a very long history of being lied to,” said Clyburn, who will turn 79 years old this month and has promised not to make a formal endorsement. “The reason there is distrust of politicians is because you promise them one thing, you double cross them later. I grew up with that. I know that is a very strong feeling in the African American community. They have a different experience with Joe Biden.”
That different experience could explain why many older black voters reject the premise that Biden should be punished for his work in helping draft the 1994 crime bill, which critics say destroyed black families and ballooned the prison population.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a Texas-raised Methodist preacher and former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, supported the crime bill as the then-mayor of Kansas City, as did Clyburn. Both men said older African Americans can recall when such a measure was necessary.
“I just hit my 40th year in the ministry, and two-thirds of all the preachers I know supported the crime bill — black preachers,” said Cleaver, 74. “Like me, they were doing funerals every other week of people murdered out of gang violence. For the first time churches had started hiring guards. ... Everywhere was just a manifestation of crime and people were saying, ‘We gotta do something.’”
Sellers insisted there would be a generational backlash to Biden’s record on race and support for the crime bill.
“I know the response is going to be ... ‘Bakari Sellers was 10 years old when the ‘94 crime bill was passed, he doesn’t know,’” he said. “We’re still living with the ramifications, and there are still generations of black men who are being taken away now.”
But as long as older voters turn out in the highest numbers, theirs could be the prevailing sentiment, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, who oversees a long-running S.C. public opinion survey.
“Younger voters, in general, could ... eclipse the older voters, but they’re not going to,” said Huffmon, the only white person interviewed for this story. “Just because they are literally larger than, say, the baby boomers, they’re not going to turn out.”
Higher stakes with Trump
Michael Bailey, of Columbia, who works with the S.C. Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, disagreed with Huffmon and others who discount younger voters.
At age 44 and drawn to both Harris and Sanders, Bailey conceded at one time he wouldn’t have thought younger black voters would turn out to the polls.
“But, as we know with the current occupant of the White House, anything can happen,” he said. “It’s a whole new generation of young Democratic voters that came in when Obama ran. Obama brought them to the polls. They’re not feeling Biden.”
Bailey could be right that Biden isn’t resonating with younger voters. But if older voters turn out in the largest numbers, as trends predict, their votes could reflect a more conservative and pragmatic sensibility from which Biden benefits.
This is Theodore Johnson’s prediction.
A senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School who wrote his doctoral dissertation on black voting behavior and is himself black, Johnson said that African Americans over the age of 45 “tend to be more risk-averse in how they exercise their vote.”
These older black voters, particularly in the South, tend to favor more conservative candidates because they perceive such candidates as being more electable than unyielding progressives, Johnson said. In this left-leaning primary field, Biden is considered a centrist.
And black voters old enough to recall the terrors of Jim Crow, Johnson added, have “a sense that the vote is too important to exercise based on gut instinct and ... a dream of what you would love to happen if the world were perfect.”
This theory guided many black S.C. voters in 2008, when Obama was seen as too much of a risk compared to Hillary Clinton. Once white voters rallied behind Obama in the Iowa Caucus, black South Carolinians delivered him the state’s primary election.
Sellers said a similar scenario could happen in 2020 to benefit Harris — if not the other prominent black Democratic 2020 candidate, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
However, the stakes feel higher for many black voters now than they did in 2008, seeing in Trump a president they believe does not deliver policies that help the African American community.
“African Americans understand that they have so much to lose with the re-election of President Trump,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a national Biden campaign co-chairman. “You’re not just talking about Roe v. Wade. You’re talking about a Supreme Court that could roll back Brown v. Board of Education, race used in college admissions. … There’s a bunch of things that are hanging out there that could decimate the African American community.”
The theory of the black vote as largely pragmatic actually underscores a sentiment expressed by nearly all the black S.C. Democrats interviewed by The State, across generations: Defeating Trump is the top priority in 2020, and there’s a belief that Biden can pull it off.
“Biden is the strongest candidate that can beat Trump,” said William Fairfax, a 21-year-old Claflin University student, pointing to Trump’s tweets targeting Biden as evidence Republicans see the former vice president as their biggest threat.
“(Biden) does not shy away from standing up to a bully,” Richmond, also a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, added.
More than a dozen black S.C. voters interviewed by The State said Biden, 76, could run on being a seasoned politician who spent nearly four decades in electoral politics, plus another eight years in the White House.
“He’s been in politics for a long time, and I think he’s the best candidate to beat Trump,” said Jeffery Lytes, 49, of Lexington.
“I’m real high on experience, and I’m real impressed with the experience he has,” added state Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon. “I think he’s the right person to bring us to victory.”
Dorothy Craig, a 56-year-old from Union who has “pretty much” decided to vote for Biden because of his experience, agreed.
“I just feel like he has the experience. I feel like we need someone who has that same experience to go back in and put it back in order.”
Biden’s tie to Obama’s tenure is motivation enough for some black S.C. voters to back him.
Travis and Cynthia Keller of Irmo — a couple in their 40s — said the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is what has helped guarantee their 11-year-old son, a three-time organ transplant recipient, gets the coverage and treatment he needs.
“We know that Joe will fight for us,“ Cynthia Keller said.
Nina Turner, former Ohio state senator and the African American co-chairwoman of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, dismissed the argument that Biden’s Obama connection would motivate primary voters.
“This is not about proximity to the first African American president,” she said. “Just because we have fond memories of somebody (doesn’t mean) we’re just going to automatically give them our vote versus people having to earn their vote every time they run.”
Yet in interview after interview, black S.C. voters said they could vouch for Biden’s character largely because of Obama.
“He’s spent eight years with President Obama,” said Columbia’s Yolanda Anderson, a Richland 1 school board member. “And, in my opinion, he has that same kind of feel.”
Asked why he was voting for Biden, Denmark resident Michael Cooper, 50, replied, “because he supported Barack Obama and (Biden) is the most qualified candidate who can help us restore America.”
Bailey, the Black Caucus spokesman, again argued S.C. support for Biden in the black community was split along generational lines.
“I don’t see young black people rushing out to the polls to support Joe Biden,” he said. “I see older blacks in church supporting Biden because that was Obama’s VP. And that’s the name they know and they’re not doing more research.”
Still, many black South Carolinians insisted they just had a certain good feeling about Biden, indicating that while some see a vote for Biden as a good strategy, others plan to vote for him out of a deep emotional connection.
That Biden has vacationed on Kiawah Island for years and made other sporadic visits to the state also makes him a familiar local presence that gives South Carolinians a feeling they really know him.
“You hear people say they trust him, you hear people say they know him,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “They feel like he’s the best fit to beat Trump. It all goes back to trust.”
‘This long history’
Some black S.C. voters suggested for the good of the party — and in order to defeat Trump — Harris and Biden should put aside differences.
“I don’t think we need to do the infighting and I see it already,” said 62-year-old Brenda Peterson, of Columbia. “And I don’t think it’s a good thing for our platform. That’s what the general public is going to see. They’re going to see that you’re fighting already.”
Yet if Biden’s goal is to win over undecided black voters, such as 31-year-old Jason Belton of Blythewood, he might need to acknowledge the episode.
“It’s going to hurt if you’re not humble and don’t apologize,” Belton said.
Biden could have that opportunity in South Carolina this weekend.
In the meantime, Clyburn doesn’t understand why support for Biden’s candidacy is hard to understand.
“It seems like people do not to want to accept the fact that Joe Biden has this long history, and if you just look at the most recent history, for eight years, he’s been this partner of the first African American president in this United States of America,” Clyburn said. “And that partner said publicly some time ago that of all the decisions he made, the decision to take on Joe Biden as his running mate was the best decision he ever made.”
For some Biden supporters, their decision for the Feb. 29 presidential primary isn’t complicated at all.
Ruth Martin, 78, told The State at Clyburn’s fish fry she’ll vote for Biden because she’s “known” him for years.
“Not known him personally,” she clarified, “but known him for a long time, known his character. I would be happy to go with him.”