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Biden's Advantage With Black Voters Highlights Warren's Challenge In South Carolina05:12
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U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, watches as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall about their joint legislative effort on student debt loan relief on Wednesday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, watches as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall about their joint legislative effort on student debt loan relief on Wednesday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

Elizabeth Warren faced an important audience Wednesday, one she may need to win over in her quest to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

She spoke to students at South Carolina State University, a historically black university in the middle of the state. She was there with Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. House and South Carolina's most influential Democrat.

Clyburn hasn't endorsed Warren, but he's co-sponsoring student debt relief legislation with her. Warren says total student debt is close to $1.5 trillion, hurting the overall economy and hitting students of color particularly hard.

"Congressman Clyburn and I are here today because we believe the way we invest in a future is, first of all, let's get rid of this student loan debt," she said to applause.

Warren is challenging former Vice President Joe Biden as the party's presidential front-runner. The Massachusetts senator is raising lots of money from small donors, and she's leading in a number of polls — both nationally and in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But Biden continues to be ahead among black voters, which gives him an edge in the key early primary state of South Carolina.

Biden's advantage in the Palmetto State highlights Warren's challenge there.

Wednesday's event at South Carolina State University illustrated both Warren's potential appeal, and her work ahead. Many in the audience appreciated what she said, but didn't know much about the senator from Massachusetts.

"It's about time we're talking about student loan debt relief," said Charles Patton, a senior at the school. "Because the cost of tuition, the cost of these fees to go to these colleges and universities is enormous, and it's something that students [struggle to] actually pay for. So, I'm really excited to hear more about what she's going to do and what other candidates are going to do."

Patton has yet to decide whom he will support for president.

But Biden has a big advantage in South Carolina in part because he is so well known, especially among older African Americans.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes selfies with supporters after the funeral for Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's wife, Emily Clyburn, on Sept. 23 in Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes selfies with supporters after the funeral for Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's wife, Emily Clyburn, on Sept. 23 in Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith/AP)

"Joe Biden's always been my guy, even before this race," said Jim Felder, who has deep roots in the Democratic Party. Back in 1963, he was a young Army sergeant who led the honor guard that carried slain President John F. Kennedy's casket. Felder, who went on to be a state legislator, activist and head of the local NAACP, says people there know and trust Biden as Barack Obama's vice president.

"The African American community in South Carolina remembers him because of Obama," he said. "Plus he served well; independent of just being the No. 2 man, he did an excellent job. So, we had the largest voter turnout in South Carolina during Obama's election, [and] we see signs out there now that [voter turnout] is going to come up again because of Biden if he is the nominee, and I think he will be."

Polls show Biden has a substantial lead over Warren in South Carolina, thanks largely to African Americans, who represent about two-thirds of the state's Democratic voters.

Some recent polls suggest that Warren is improving her standing nationally with black voters. So her supporters in South Carolina, like Wendy Brawley, a state representative from Columbia, say Warren's message of big structural change and economic justice will catch on.

"I think when more people hear that message in South Carolina, it's going to serve the African American vote very well," she said.

[RELATED: Warren Has Lagged With Voters Of Color. But She Has Strong Support In Boston's Black Community]

Brawley says South Carolina is a high-tech state, but it's also what she calls a "high-touch state," meaning it's important that politicians put themselves in front of voters often. Brawley believes the more Warren does that, the better she will do.

And she argues that Warren — more than Biden — would give Democrats the best chance to win in 2020.

"The voters of this country have voted for change," she said. "They voted for it on the Democratic side when Obama became president. I think that's when we win. We need to have change agents, not people who play it safe."

Brawley's view is at the heart of a debate among Democrats in South Carolina and across the country: Embrace progressive change, or moderation and a known quantity.

At a community event in Columbia this week, Marie Brooks of Sumter, South Carolina, said Biden is the safer choice, even though she's impressed with Warren.

"Because of what happened to Hillary Clinton, I don't know that America is ready for a woman," Brooks said. "At least [people] don't act as if they are. And I know we have to change that, but right now, that's what I'm seeing and feeling, and I don't want to waste a vote."

The South Carolina primary — which follows voting in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — is a key contest for Democrats. It takes place just before Super Tuesday, when Massachusetts and more than a dozen states vote. In 2008, South Carolina helped propel Obama toward the nomination, as it did Clinton in 2016. That's what Biden is counting on, and it's why Warren hopes to catch up in South Carolina.

This segment aired on October 11, 2019.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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