Biden campaigns in South Carolina as he struggles to build Black voter support

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Amid declining support from Black voters, President Joe Biden headed Monday to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of a horrific hate crime in which a white supremacist massacred nine worshippers in 2015 — what his campaign sees as a high-stakes address as he kicks off the election year.

The address at the historic church, known as “Mother Emanuel,” comes just days after Biden kicked off the campaign year near Valley Forge, Pa., criticizing Trump for his actions during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. 

Biden reiterated these themes and spent time highlighting the experiences of Ruby Freeman and Shay Moss, two Georgia election workers who were the subject of various right-wing attacks and conspiracy theories, calling them “two brave black women”.

He also pushed back on Republican attempts to sanitize the events of Jan. 6, saying, “They tried to steal an election and now they’re trying to steal history.”

“I think it’s important for him to come,” said state Rep. JA Moore, whose sister was among those killed at the church. “We’re at a very critical moment after what Donald Trump has stoked.”

Poll numbers show Biden’s support among Black voters — especially Black men — is slipping dramatically. Biden carried 92% of Black voters in 2020, but recent polling found as many as 20% open to voting for Trump.

Biden took a dig at another Republican candidate, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, saying “For those who don’t seem to know, slavery was the cause of the Civil War” referencing her widely criticized comments on the matter.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement helped catapult Biden to a crucial win in South Carolina’s primary in 2020, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he was “very concerned” about Biden’s standing with Black voters.

“I have no problem with the Biden administration and what it has done,” Clyburn said. “My problem is that we have not been able to break through that MAGA wall in order to get to people exactly what this president has done.”

The frustration among some Black voters started early in the Biden presidency, when Democrats failed to pass voting rights legislation. But the ire has become more pronounced and now threatens to drag down Biden’s re-election bid in 2024.

Nashonda Hunter, 41, said that while she still supports Biden over the alternative, she was disappointed in his administration so far. 

“I just feel like it’s been a lot of broken promises,” she said.

She and other Black voters who spoke with NBC News listed student loan debt relief as a top priority. The Supreme Court ruled last summer along ideological lines that the Biden administration overstepped by trying to forgive $400 billion in federal student loans lingering from the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the White House says it has used other methods to cancel student debt for 3.6 million people. But that message hasn’t reached many voters.

Biden highlighted what he saw as major wins for the black community during his presidency including reducing the cost of prescription drugs, lowering the income gap between white and black Americans, and celebrating black history through the designation of Juneteenth as a national holiday.

He also spoke about his commitment to reducing gun violence through his support for an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

A source familiar with the plans said that Biden will also meet today with family members and survivors of the 2015 shooting.

Former state Rep. Fletcher Smith, a surrogate for Biden in the 2008 election and again in 2020, stressed that he was frustrated not with the president himself — but with his staff.

“I think part of the problem with that is that the messaging from the White House is not actually resonating in the Black community,” he said. “That administration looks like they don’t want the Black vote.”

Other voters questioned why the Biden administration was so intent on spending billions of dollars overseas in Israel and Ukraine while putting less emphasis on what they see as more pressing domestic priorities. Others said they wanted to see more action on police reform. And some suggested that Biden may have “borrowed” Black support from Barack Obama during his 2020 election win.

“Because he was Barack Obama’s vice president, I think he got a lot of benefit from it,” Smith said. “There are some Barack Obama holdovers in his administration running the Barack Obama playbook. And that’s what’s hurting Biden. Biden needs to get his own playbook.”

There are also questions about whether Biden’s central campaign message about fighting threats to democracy will resonate with voters.

Maurice Washington, a conservative former Charleston County GOP chair, said it was a message of division.

“It has nothing to do with bringing the country together,” he said.

Biden’s campaign has downplayed any waning of support among Black voters and insists Monday’s trip to South Carolina and Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Myrtle Beach on Saturday are not only about courting that key constituency. 

The trips “aren’t from a place of worry,” deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said in a call with reporters. “They’re from a place of practicing what we preach.”

Campaign officials stress that Biden prioritized putting South Carolina’s Democratic primary — scheduled for Feb. 3 — first in the nation to involve more people of color in the nominating process. They also point to a large investment in Black and Hispanic media, as well as early organizing efforts meant to communicate to voters of color that they’re the ones that have the most at stake in this election.

“That sends a clear signal that we’re not going to wait and parachute into these communities at the last minute and ask them for their vote,” Fulks said. “We’re going to earn their vote.”

The speech was briefly interrupted by protestors calling for a “ceasefire now” in Gaza. Biden’s support of Israel has been a major factor in his falling approval rating among young voters.