Democrats bring mixed emotions to their first presidential primary, one in which Joe Biden is heavily favored but over which Donald Trump casts a long shadow.
COLUMBIA, S.C.—Democratic voters will enter the voting booth in the state’s primary election on Saturday driven in nearly equal parts by an aspiration for a better future and apprehension about the effect of a second Trump administration on their lives.
Jamie Harrison, 47, chair of the Democratic National Committee, captured the mood of a group of mostly black voters in Florence on Feb. 1. “This election is about hope versus fear, progress versus chaos,” he said to scattered responses of yes and amen.
South Carolina Democrats, 51 percent of of whom are black, appear ready to proclaim President Joe Biden their nominee for a second consecutive election.
They are not unaware of the risk involved in supporting an aging chief executive. Yet many are hopeful that this president will continue to make their daily lives more tolerable and their future more inviting.
Yet beneath that hope lies a deeply rooted fear that allowing President Donald Trump to regain the White House would turn back the clock on gains in civil liberty and prosperity made not in a single presidential term but over a lifetime.
“Biden has done a good job,” Marcurius Byrd, 39, of Columbia, told The Epoch Times. “For most people, he has hit the bare minimum expectation. For other people, he’s exceeded their expectations.”
Mr. Byrd founded the Central Highlands chapter of South Carolina Young Democrats a decade ago and now serves as its senior advisor.
While some younger Democrats sing the president’s praises in muted tones, they generally acknowledge that he has been a capable leader whose leadership has furthered their interests.
An older generation of South Carolina Democrats praises President Biden’s record in full voice. They point to COVID-19 relief funds delivered to families and businesses, broadband internet provided to rural communities, student loan relief for some 4 million borrowers, increased manufacturing of microchips, and improvements in infrastructure.
“Joe Biden got COVID relief money to mom-and-pop businesses,” Mr. Harrison said, adding that initial relief efforts mostly aided large corporations. “They’re fine giving millions away to big businesses, but they don’t want to help working people,“ he said.
President Biden capped the price of insulin and delivered infrastructure improvements that President Trump had promised but did not accomplish, Mr. Harrison added.
“The country is in a good place,” Andrina Mullins, 40, a small-business owner from Florence, told The Epoch Times. “A good group of people surrounds Joe Biden. We’ll be fine. We’re fine now.”
“Promise made, promise kept,” Mr. Harrison said.
At the same time, many Democrats who recall the political and social changes of the last several decades are eager to keep the progress going.
“I hear a lot about access to health care. A lot of people have that on their mind,” Valerie Moore, 64, of Columbia, told The Epoch Times. As the Democratic party chair for Florence County, Ms. Moore is aware of problems faced by South Carolinians outside her own community.
“I think across the state, access to broadband internet is a huge issue,” she said, noting that many rural residents still don’t have access to what many have come to think of as a basic utility like water and electricity.
Lethonia Barnes, 58, a city councilwoman from Florence, would like to advance women’s rights and reproductive rights and improve wages. “We’re becoming a country of haves and have-nots. The middle class is disappearing,” she told The Epoch Times.
“Ten years from now, we will hopefully be on track to having back-to-back presidential wins,” Mr. Byrd said, in which Democratic president may succeed another Democratic president who has served two terms.
“I think we will have fixed what I call the rural-city divide,” he added, bringing rural dwellers who have come to believe the Republican party best represents them back into the Democratic fold.
He also hopes to see more people of his generation serving in Congress.
These Democrats cast a hopeful vision of change for the future. Yet underneath that optimism is the fear that their lives—and the prospects for the country—could grow worse rather than better.
Democrats in South Carolina recognize that President Biden, at 81, is not a young man. Yet they see electing him to a second term as reasonable, especially given the age of his likely general election opponent, who is just four years younger.
“He’s really sharp,” Ms. Moore said of President Biden, noting that she had met him recently and held a brief conversation.
“He sounds a little slurry and moves a little slower, but he knows how to get things done through the people around him,” she added.
The consensus among many Democrats is that the 2024 election will come down to a choice between two relatively old men. One of them, President Trump, they see as having been an ineffective executive who plunged the country into chaos, and the other, President Biden, they believe has advanced an agenda that improved their lives.
“The lead candidate on the Republican side is seeing the same criticism due to his advanced age and perceived diminished capacity,” Austin Jackson, 33, of Columbia told The Epoch Times. Mr. Jackson is the president of South Carolina Young Democrats.
“That makes the general election effectively a question of competence. Do you want a competent administration led by an 81-year-old man or an incompetent administration led by someone that’s pushing 80?” he asked.
Yet, in the end, Democrats here appear more worried about policy than age. While they may have some concerns about President Biden’s health, they are downright fearful of how President Trump’s leaders might affect their lives.
“I’m concerned the hands of time will be reversed under the administration of Trump,” Ms. Barnes said. “We’re divided as ever. We need to get past race and gender to focus on the needs of people.
She feared that a Trump presidency would only bring further that division.
The fear of losing ground on civil rights is a refrain among many South Carolina Democrats.
“As a gay man in the south, there is fear there … It’s not something that we’re making up,” Dylan Gunnels, 31, of Columbia, told The Epoch Times. “Those of us that are familiar with LGBTQ history, those that are familiar with black history, we see the signs. We see the writing on the wall, we see the legislation that’s already been proposed, and we see actions that are already happening around us,” he said.
Polly Sheppard, 79, is the lone survivor of the racially motivated 2015 massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. She told The Epoch Times of her concern over “reproductive rights, voter suppression, and the banning of books.”
“I’m looking at the two candidates, and I don’t think we have a choice,” she said. “We’re not going back to those times.”
Yet the overall sense among these voters is that hope will prevail.
“My hope and desire is that, as we continue in this difficult work that is politics … and trying to change things from a policy perspective, that we don’t lose our humanity and we don’t lose the ability to see and one another—that we’re all driven by a sense of fear and a sense of hope,” Mr. Gunnels said.
Mr. Harrison, closing his remarks to the voters in Florence, noted the motto of South Carolina: While I breathe, I hope.
”Hope without action is never realized,” Mr. Harrison said, suggesting another version of the motto: While I breathe, I vote. “That is how we make change real.”