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How South Carolina's African American Voters Are Mobilizing For Biden And Challengers


Former Vice President Joe Biden says he can still win South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary. That's what he told donors at a fundraiser in New York yesterday. Biden is counting on what has so far been his support from black voters, who make up a large share of the electorate there. But after Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, other campaigns see opportunity in the state.

Juana Summers covers demographics and culture for NPR. She's been spending a lot of time in South Carolina but is here in studio. Welcome back.


CORNISH: Why do people make such a big deal out of Joe Biden in South Carolina?

SUMMERS: Well, a win in South Carolina kind of cuts right to the center of Joe Biden's theory of the case for why he should be the Democratic nominee. He argues that he will be able to mobilize support among black voters there and then extend that for the diverse Southern states that come after and put together a winning coalition. Now, we haven't seen a lot of recent polling from South Carolina, but it does seem that some of the other candidates who are campaigning in the state are starting to move up and cut into what's been a wide lead for Joe Biden.

Biden's campaign just announced that they're going to redeploy some more staff there and will soon have, like, 60 staffers on the ground. He was there recently. He was just there on Tuesday as New Hampshire's results rolled in. That is where I met Tina Herbert, who is a Joe Biden supporter.

TINA HERBERT: I'm looking at electability, and I'm looking at him and which of the candidates I think when it comes to being on the opposite side of Trump will likely potentially pull the independent voters, maybe pull some of the Republican voters who are totally tired of Trump.

CORNISH: At the same time, you mentioned that there are some people rising in the polls, and I know one of them is billionaire businessman Tom Steyer. What's his strategy?

SUMMERS: Audie, he's been spending a lot of time there, and frankly, a lot of money. He has held more events in the state than any other candidate who's still in the race, and he has about 90 staffers on the ground. So he's got one of the biggest staffs there, the biggest, in fact. And he's been aggressively targeting black voters, using that money for radio, digital, TV ads. If you're in South Carolina, you kind of can't miss him.

This week, his campaign also announced that it hired Gilda Cobb-Hunter. She is the longest serving member of South Carolina's State House, and she's joining the campaign as a senior adviser. I sat down with her this week.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Tom Steyer is the only candidate that I'm aware of in these last 20 years who has actually come on the ground in South Carolina, who has done business with black newspapers, with black radio. I'm talking about investing in the black community in a way that his message resonates and reaches.

SUMMERS: Cobb-Hunter is someone who typically doesn't endorse in presidential races, and she's been an elected official in the state for decades. So the Steyer campaign signing her is a really big deal.

CORNISH: Can we talk about Bernie Sanders? People have been saying that this has changed for him a lot since 2016.

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. We saw in 2016 that he had quite a bit of room to grow with voters of color and particularly black voters. And he does seem to be doing that. Here in South Carolina, he's been especially targeting young black voters, and he's gotten support actually of some high-profile black lawmakers in the state, too.

CORNISH: OK. Empty your notebook. What else are you seeing on the ground?

SUMMERS: So we're moving into this new phase in the race where the states - the electorates of the states that are to come are more diverse, more Latino and black voters. And there are a couple candidates in this race, including Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who so far haven't seen significant support from those voters. And so I went around, and I asked voters about those candidates.

When we talked about Amy Klobuchar, there was some interest after a strong debate performance and then her New Hampshire results. But people said they didn't know a lot about her, so she was kind of something of a blank slate. People knew more about Buttigieg. He's hiring a lot more staff there, and he's recently picked up a couple of endorsements from officials in South Carolina. One of them is Jalen Elrod, a vice chair of the Greenville County Democrats.

JALEN ELROD: Pete Buttigieg, to his credit, he worked at it. You know, he kept going to African American media outlets, churches, reaching out to influencers in our community and really working for our vote.

SUMMERS: He told me that he thought Biden's electability argument had been damaged after Iowa and New Hampshire and that he worried Sanders' message wouldn't sell to voters in a general election. That's why he's backing Buttigieg.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juana Summers reporting on South Carolina. That state holds its primary two weeks from tomorrow. Thanks so much, Juana.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.