ORANGEBURG, S.C. — It’s been a long day for Ronni Wilson.
A sophomore at Claflin University, a historically black university in Orangeburg, S.C., Wilson had seven hours of class, then NAACP karaoke night, followed by a restorative justice event to support a student victim of gun violence.
Still, she is here, she says — watching the fifth Democratic debate in a college lecture hall until 11 p.m. on a Wednesday — because it’s important to know about politics, especially as a young black woman in South Carolina.
“The candidates are focusing on what is going to persuade black voters here, looking at the things that mean more to us,” says Wilson, who helped organize Wednesday’s debate watch-party, bringing in almost 40 students in typical college fashion — enticing them with coke and bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Students here are used to candidates courting them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sponsored the last debate watch-party, dispatching a staffer with free snacks and campaign pamphlets. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) came to a football game. Almost all of the candidates have visited Orangeburg, a city of 13,000 largely defined by two HBCUs: Claflin and its neighbor school, South Carolina State University.
Many students know exactly why they’ve been getting so much attention: If anyone is going to beat former vice president Joe Biden, they need to win black voters in South Carolina — and the youngest voters might be their best shot.
Even as Biden has fallen behind in Iowa and New Hampshire — repeatedly coming up short of Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — he has held onto his formidable lead in South Carolina. If the Democratic primary was held right now, according to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, instead of on Feb. 29, 44 percent of likely black voters here say they would vote for Biden. That’s compared to just 10 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 8 percent for Warren, 6 percent for Harris and less than one percent for Buttigieg. As the first primary state where black voters make up the majority of the Democratic electorate, South Carolina is widely seen as a testing ground for a candidate’s ability to build a diverse coalition of support.
Biden’s support is strongest among older, politically-moderate African Americans. But young black voters are far less sold on Biden than their parents and grandparents. Much of the younger crowd — intrigued by more progressive policies on issues like student debt and health care — is still making up its mind.
“Joe Biden’s message to younger [black] voters remains to be seen,” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative in South Carolina, told Bloomberg. “That’s an untapped market that still seems to be searching for a candidate.”
Freshman Otiana Thompson can understand why Biden is doing so well in the polls South Carolina.
“Everyone associates him with Obama, and everyone likes Obama,” Thompson says before before the debate begins. That familiarity can be comforting, she adds. But for her and her friends, the connection to former president Barack Obama isn’t nearly as important.
“We were really young when Obama was first elected. We didn’t really know what was going on,” says sophomore Kameryn Frazier. “I feel like this is definitely a generational thing.”
Frazier and Thompson worry about Biden’s age. As he starts to talk, they point out that he seems particularly low-energy. His policies, Thompson adds, also seem to belong in a different time.
“The problem is that he’s not progressive enough. We’re trying to go into 2021, but he is going on like it’s 1950.”
“Yeah,” says Lauren Tolbert, a freshman. “I don’t know anyone who supports him here.”
A few students say that initially, they had been hoping to support Harris. They liked that she is a black woman who attended Howard University, another HBCU. But then she took every possible opportunity to talk about Howard and Alpha Kappa Alpha, her historically black sorority, says Frazier. At one particular event in South Carolina, she arrived with an all-black drumline.
“It was very off-putting,” she says. “Just because you come in with an HBCU marching band isn’t going to make us vote for you. Trying to appeal to the black population that way is corny to me.”
Wilson volunteered for Harris earlier in the year, but is eager to clarify that she only did it for the political experience — and a free ticket to a picnic hosted by the Harris campaign.
“I don’t want to say that [Harris] is a kiss-up,” Wilson said. “But she is a kiss-up.”
But while the campaign tactics are bad, Wilson adds, her biggest problem with Harris is her track record as a prosecutor, first as district attorney of San Francisco, then as attorney general of California. While Harris is now trying to portray herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” Wilson says, she was actually known for being tough on crime. Wilson worries about how many people — young, black men, in particular — would go to jail over the course of a Harris presidency.
“What if her mindset is still the same? The incarceration rate now is already high, but it could be higher with her in office,” Wilson said.
When the debate breaks for commercials, Faith Johnson, who organized the event with Wilson, stands up at the front of the lecture hall.
“What candidate stood out to you?”
“Warren,” someone yells from the back. A few others say “Warren,” too.
“And Klobuchar was coming with the heat,” says Thompson, referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The whole night, no one has anything bad to say about Warren. Almost everyone says she is the candidate most likely to get their vote. For Wilson, student debt is the top issue. She thinks Warren is the candidate most likely to do something about it.
“Her education plan is the most important thing for me,” says Wilson.
“All her plans,” says Tolbert. “I love all of them.”
“She has a plan and she knows how she is going to implement the plan,” adds Wilson. “I like that.”
Frazier is also interested in Warren. She leaves the debate early. On Thursday, she will drive three hours to see Warren speak at Clark Atlanta University, another HBCU. It’s good to see Warren spending so much time getting to know young, black voters, Frazier says. Making that kind of effort is especially important for a candidate like her, Frazier says, who has no real history with these communities.
If Warren does things right, she says, she just might be able to win them over.