© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Biden Has Lost Support Among Black Voters. His Allies Blame Misinformation.

Operatives in South Carolina poured their money and focus into a targeted “voter education” campaign across the state. They say it paid off.

South Carolina Democratic primary voters at a Richland County early voting site.
Saturday’s Democratic primary was a testing ground for Biden’s popularity among Black voters. Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

Democratic Party officials in South Carolina don’t think there’s a lack of enthusiasm among Black voters but rather, a lack of good information that’s keeping people from supporting President Biden’s reelection.

Ahead of Saturday’s primary, operatives on the ground poured their money and focus into a targeted “voter education” campaign across the state’s 46 counties in an effort to better show what Biden has done that included a 30-stop bus tour in both urban and rural locations. If they can prove their work moved the needle, even a little bit, these efforts could be replicated by Democrats nationwide.

“We needed to educate our voters and create a space for our candidates to come talk about their record,” Christale Spain, South Carolina’s Democratic Party chair, told NOTUS on Saturday. “That’s really why we launched this historic effort, to fill what I feel is an information gap and not an enthusiasm gap.”

Voter turnout was just around 4% on Saturday night, far lower than 16% in 2020 when Biden’s South Carolina win catapulted him to the nomination, but it’s not an entirely surprising number given the president is relatively uncontested (two others — Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson are on the ballot). Still, the first-in-the-nation official primary on Saturday was a testing ground for Biden’s popularity among Black voters. Black voter turnout increased by 13% from four years ago and 6,000 new voters participated in the Democratic primary for the first time, Spain said on primary night.

“It was really about people not knowing the information,” Spain said. During voter outreach, the SCDP found, “that voters didn’t know what Democrats had to deliver.” The results, where Biden handily won every county in the state with over 95% of the vote, were “a testament,” to that effort, she said. In total, over 115 events were held in South Carolina ahead of the primary, the DNC announced Saturday.

Among the complaints officials have heard from voters is that the economy is doing very poorly (it’s getting better), that Biden hasn’t forgiven student debt like he promised (in many instances, he has) and that it was only Trump who sent COVID stimulus checks out (a round was sent under Biden in 2021). And then there’s a more broad complaint that Biden hasn’t done much of anything at all.

Polls show that Biden’s standing with Black voters has waned significantly since 2020. Younger voters, too, a key bloc for the president, are becoming increasingly dissatisfied. At meetings with campaign officials last year, Black women leaders sounded alarms that Biden needed a clearer message to reach communities of color. South Carolina’s education tour was one attempt to address some of those concerns.

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A flyer distributed at the FITN Bus Tour stop in Hartsville, SC. Jasmine Wright/NOTUS

It’s not just filling information gaps: Countering misinformation has been a focal point of Democrats’ 2024 efforts. The Biden campaign has already assembled a legal advisory group to tackle mis- and disinformation and generative artificial intelligence, one campaign official told NOTUS.

“I think there’s a lot of disinformation out there,” Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison told NOTUS in an interview at a stop in Hartsville, S.C. “There are a lot of folks who don’t want this president for whatever reason, and I think some foreign and some domestic. They don’t want the record to be straight in terms of what this president has done and accomplished.”

Guests at some of the events were offered pamphlets listing some of Biden’s wins that officials hoped would appeal to voters: The Inflation Reduction Act capped the cost of insulin at $35, infrastructure initiatives to provide high-speed internet in rural areas, and over $130 billion in national student debt forgiveness.

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Like any political event in the South, there was music followed by spirited speeches from guest speakers and campaign surrogates, and familiar, jovial chants: “Fired up, ready to go!” In true Southern tradition, guests didn’t leave without a plate of soul food.

Most of the events took place during the day and attracted modest crowds of 30 to 50 people, with the audience age range skewing significantly older, a reality that alarmed several of those in attendance.

Eighty-year-old Nan Fleming looked around her voter education event in Bennettsville on Thursday, she said, and realized the wrong people were there.

“This group here, you’re speaking to the choir, we already know,” she told NOTUS, of Biden’s record. In other cycles, events like these would be standing room only, she said. “The people that we really need to know the things that Biden has done — they need to be here. They’re not here.”

Harrison shared the same worries about engaging younger voters. He emphasized, though, that event programming was just one part of the effort to combat misinformation.

“You’re going to see a lot more resources flowing into working with influencers on TikTok and YouTube and Instagram because we understand that there’s a whole generation that’s only getting their information from these mediums,” he told NOTUS. “We got to be there.”

Barbara Carraway, membership chair of the Democratic Women’s Council of Darlington County, said the party was also engaged in typical grassroots efforts like door-knocking, phone banking and directly engaging with students at local universities.

Still, some Democrats believed event outreach wasn’t going to be dogged enough.

“This is the type of event that you need to push weeks out,” said Rev. Stacey Tarlton, a local religious leader. “If not every other day, remind everyone that, ‘This is coming up, you need to be present.’”

Zyah Cephus, a senior and student body president at South Carolina State University, introduced Vice President Kamala Harris at a smaller invite-only rally in Orangeburg on Friday. Having high-profile officials come to the state and talk about Biden’s record is crucial, she said, having learned just how many Black judges Biden has nominated to federal courts.

“I really didn’t know the information,” she said. “I think those are things that the youth need to hear. I think, oftentimes, we’re kind of connected with the wrong things and disconnected with the right things. We know about Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion, but we don’t know about what’s going on in politics.”

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS.