A group of about 16 white Danish political tourists, dining on platters of crab rice and smothered turkey wings, listened inquisitively but stayed focused on their meal. The only hoots came from local Democratic operatives in attendance.
Getting voters jazzed has proven challenging for South Carolina Democrats in the lead up to Saturday’s election. And that, in turn, could be a problem for the Biden campaign,
which is banking on a strong showing among the state’s Black electorate to quiet the chorus of concerns that he has an enthusiasm problem with the party’s most loyal voting bloc.
Officials with the party spent the closing days crisscrossing the state engaging Black voters. But turnout at some of these events was sparse, with many of them attended by party officials. Of the Black voters outside of party-backed events, few seem excited or even aware of the coming election. It’s not just because they’re unenthused about Biden, it’s that they don’t see the primary as much of a contest at all.
“It’s not a competitive election,” said Sam Skardon, chair of the Charleston County Democrats.
Skardon said he does not expect his county to show out the way it did in 2020, when roughly 63,000 voters voted in a competitive primary that helped launch Biden to the nomination. He predicts a turnout of somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 20,000 votes in Charleston County. Should that come to pass he sees it as “a good sign” of enthusiasm for Biden — and help cement South Carolina as the party’s first real nominating state.
“As excited as we are to go vote,” he adds, “the argument about why it’s so important is kind of a political process argument [and] it’s always hard to get people to vote on process arguments.”
Saturday’s results present a conundrum for the Biden campaign and allied Democrats, some of whom have questioned
whether it was wise to up the stakes in the state. They have downplayed any perceived threat that the president faces from the likes of Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips or self-help author Marianne Williamson. But they are also hoping that voters don’t treat the primary as a fait accompli and, instead, come out in droves — in particular, Black voters, to demonstrate that Biden maintains support and enthusiasm from his base.
Clay Middleton, a senior adviser to the Biden reelection campaign based in Charleston, admits there is more pressure on party officials to deliver votes than perhaps enthusiasm for voters to show up at the polls.
“The average person is not in tune because … there’s not the urgency or crisis like there was the last time,” Middleton tells POLITICO. “So now it’s about those who have benefited and are feeling the results of this administration to show [their] appreciation by voting.”
Critics of the Democratic turnout operation say there is already proof that they’re right to be concerned. They point to a special election this week for a state House district where less than 800 votes were cast, less than 5 percent of eligible voters in the district,
according to the county’s board of elections.
Tiffany Spann-Wilder, the winner of the state House seat, didn’t have the backing of the Democratic establishment and blamed the party for not doing enough to inform voters that a special election was taking place.
“When I look at the Democratic Party, what we are missing, from an outsider’s point of view, is structure,” Spann-Wilder said, adding she’s concerned the party is not reaching new potential voters and those who aren’t already primed to participate in elections.
When it comes to the presidential primary, the party is clearly trying to inform voters. South Carolina Democrats have explored just about any lever to pull to motivate the electorate, particularly voters of color.
Among the pitches they’ve been forced to address is whether Democrats should forgo voting in the Democratic primary at all, and instead cast their ballots in the Republican primary that is taking place weeks later.
There is a belief if Democrats cast ballots in the GOP primary to help former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, it could help thwart former President Donald Trump from winning the state. But state law prohibits voters from participating in both primaries.
Jay Parmley, the South Carolina Democrats executive director, is among those trying to convince Democrats this is a bad idea.
“That is stupid,” Parmley said of the strategy. “We’re not stopping Donald Trump, the Republicans aren’t stopping Donald Trump,” he said. “Democrats who think they’re going to mess around in a Republican primary, makes no sense.”
Charles Maxwell, a former firefighter and owner of CJ’s Barbershop in Charleston, said he understands why some Black voters may not be enthused about voting in the primary. He cited the lack of competition and not having that sense of urgency to help lift Biden the way many did four years ago.
Using a fire fighting term, he described the Democratic primary as at the “incipient stage” of campaign and said Black voters have the opportunity to serve as the accelerant.
But the fundamental hurdle that the party is trying to clear before Saturday is not convincing voters that they should ignore the GOP primary or that they can help boost Joe Biden once more. It is to inform them that an actual primary is taking place and, after that, to get them to care.
On Thursday, around 50 local officials and community leaders filtered into the Hartsville-Butler Heritage Foundation Auditorium, a two-and-and-a-half hour drive north of Charleston. They shook hands and snapped a picture with Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison, a South Carolina native. But many of the people in the room were already deeply involved in local politics, if not elected officials themselves.
“So many just aren’t aware,” said Darlington City Councilmember Elaine Reed.
Harrison ticked through the list of things Biden has done for Black communities from student loan debt cancellation, to rural broadband access, to replacing lead pipes. Vice President Harris made a trip to the state on Friday in Orangeburg, making a similar pitch to a crowd of about 250.
“It’s been a hard sell,” said Davita Malloy, 60, of Darlington County, an active member of the local Democratic Women’s council and whose husband is a state senator. “Everyone assumes [Biden is] going to get it, so there’s an attitude of ‘why bother?’”
Those sentiments were mirrored by a group at the local International Longshoremen’s Association Union building taking part in a Black women’s firearm safety course on Thursday.
Two of them said they didn’t plan to vote in Saturday’s primary and will likely hold off voting in the general election. Charlene Felder of Goose Creek, South Carolina said of the upcoming primary: “Should I be excited?”
Another, Tabitha Jackson of Charleston, said, “But Biden is old!”
And then there are those who have just soured on the president entirely. Joshua Holmes, who runs Gunna Gear LLC, and training partner Keasha Pate, the instructors for the course, both said they voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Biden in 2020.
In the 2024 election, however, they’re switching to vote for Trump.
“Would I hang out with Trump and shoot the shit with him? No, I wouldn’t,” said Holmes. But, he added, while Trump may be seen by many as racist and race-baiting, he doesn’t bother him.
“It’s the honest him,” Holmes said. “I respect that.”
Lauren Egan contributed to this report.