Biden easily wins South Carolina’s Democratic primary, a ‘measuring stick’ for Black support

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The race for the Democratic presidential nomination officially began Saturday in South Carolina, where President Joe Biden easily won his party’s primary in a state that helped save his flagging campaign four years ago.

News outlets called Biden’s victory over long-shot Democratic rivals shortly after the polls closed in South Carolina.

It was a race that served as a measure — albeit an imperfect one — of the president’s appeal with the Black voters who dominate South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. And it could offer clues about the level of enthusiasm of his supporters in Georgia and other Southern states.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been addressing mostly Black audiences across the state, focusing on low jobless rates, student debt relief, expanding rural broadband access and new federal grants for historically Black colleges and universities.

The president also is keen to praise voters here for reviving his then-foundering campaign. Biden’s 2020 victory in South Carolina propelled his path to the Democratic nomination, and he put the state atop the party’s nomination calendar for this year as a reward.

“You’re the reason Donald Trump is a loser,” Biden told voters here last week. “And you’re the reason we’re going to win and beat him again.”

But Biden faces persistent questions on whether he can rekindle the fragile coalition of Black voters, middle-of-the-road independents and disaffected Republicans that helped him narrowly defeat Trump in 2020.

Some party loyalists here also plan to cross over to vote in the Feb. 24 GOP primary, which could be the last chance for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to slow Donald Trump’s comeback bid.

And Democrats are particularly worried about polls that indicate Black voters — the cornerstone of the party’s base in the South — aren’t as enthusiastic about Biden’s quest for a second term.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, for instance, showed 10% of Black voters in Georgia say they don’t plan to vote in the White House race at all. And other state and national polls that show lagging support among minority voters have alarmed party operatives.

Chris Salley, who recently resigned as head of the Anderson County Democratic Party, said he senses a growing generational divide among Black Democrats over Biden’s agenda and foreign policy.

While older voters seem to be voting for Biden “without hesitation,” Salley said, younger South Carolina Democrats are more likely to question their support for the incumbent.

 President Joe Biden attended a service last week at St. John the Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. While campaigning in the state ahead of Saturday's primary, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have mostly addressed Black audiences, focusing on low jobless rates among minorities and major new federal grants for historically Black colleges and universities. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

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“The younger you go, the less interest there is in participating in the primary, and there’s more willingness to consider supporting independent candidates,” said Salley, who said Biden’s pro-Israel policy in its war against Hamas is one of the key factors.

Biden’s supporters say signs of disaffection with his campaign are a messaging problem — and not red flags about frustration with his political agenda.

Antjuan Seawright, a veteran Democratic strategist in Columbia, said the race will only crystallize as the November election nears.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that narrative about Black Democrats,” Seawright said. “But campaigns are built in phases, and we aren’t even in the part yet when we have to lean in. The worst thing Biden can do is peak at the wrong time.”

Reading much into turnout figures is complicated, since Democrats didn’t hold a South Carolina primary in 2012 or 1996 — the last two times an incumbent Democrat sought reelection. But party leaders touted a 13% spike in Black early voting turnout compared with 2020. More than 130,000 people voted overall, with Biden capturing well over 90% of the vote.

Even as Haley battles Trump in her home state, Biden and his allies have declared the primary campaign over and tried to drive a sense of urgency toward Saturday’s vote, which some also frame as the start of the general election campaign.

Jonathan Sweeney, a Greenville activist who has helped mobilize Biden supporters, said Saturday will be a “true measuring stick” for the president’s popularity.

“We take the responsibility of setting the tone seriously,” he added. “Plainly put, South Carolina picks presidents.”

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, left, greets President Joe Biden upon his arrival last week in Columbia, South Carolina. In 2020, the state's Democrats gave him an important win that led to his nomination. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

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