Black voters in South Carolina could boost Tom Steyer’s rise

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer addresses a crowd of undecided voters in Winnsboro, South Carolina. The event included a DJ, free food and a video game truck. (Brandon Raphael Dupre/MEDILL)

By Brandon Raphael Dupre
Medill Reports

Easter Benjamin stood on her front porch watching Tom Steyer canvassers in bright orange and blue campaign shirts spill out of a van. Their shirts flashed across the backdrop of muddied grass and drab woods in a mostly African American neighborhood outside the small city center.

Benjamin, an African American prison counselor in York County, has seen canvassers in her neighborhood before, although in different shirts. Biden canvassers? she recalls thinking. Maybe Bernie? But these days she is so inundated with TV and mail ads and people knocking on her door, the campaigns all blur together.

“There’s so many running that it makes it so hard for the peoples to narrow down who to vote for,” said Benjamin, slouching against her porch banister as if exhausted. “Too stressed with the debt of everyday life, people’ll say, ‘I’m just not gonna vote’ and that’s how they lose a lot of voters.”

Benjamin is just one voter. But, as presidential candidates turn their attention to South Carolina, the question remains salient: How do candidates win South Carolina’s black vote, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the state’s Democratic electorate.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s long-standing relationship with black voters and two-terms as Barack Obama’s second-in-command have been the foundation of his popularity in the Palmetto State. But, after poor showings in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, his double-digit lead is gone.

The most recent East Carolina University poll has Biden leading Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) by only 8%. Another poll, conducted by the Post and Courier, has Biden’s lead down to just 5%.

No one has seemed to benefit more from Biden’s fall than billionaire Tom Steyer, who barely registered votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Steyer now finds himself third, only a couple of percentage points behind Sanders, after spending $14 million on TV and radio ads and making frequent visits to the state, such as the one over the weekend, when he hosted events in Winnsboro and Rock Hill while other candidates were giving speeches in New Hampshire.

But Steyer’s all-or-nothing approach and strong poll numbers aren’t only about money, said state Sen. John L. Scott, Jr., of Richmond County. He is addressing black issues other candidates don’t talk about, including broadband access, jobs, raising the minimum wage, historically black colleges and reparations.

“I haven’t heard Biden talk about these issues,” he said. “If a candidate is not talking about these issues, the candidate is not my candidate, and we need a business person who really understands how to turn those things around.”

At his campaign stop in Winnsboro, a small suburb of Columbia, the state capital, Steyer spoke bluntly about the economic issues facing small towns, emphasizing the need for a $22 minimum wage to stimulate the economy in a town where the unemployment rate is 6.4%, nearly twice the national average. The current minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25.

“The most important thing is jobs, high paying jobs, not these cheap ones,” said Ernie James Weldon, 70, a retired African American warehouse worker whose company closed as industries moved elsewhere. “Not $8 or $10 an hour, and he said $22, not even $15. I don’t know how he’s going to do that, but I like it.”

Like others at Steyer’s last-minute rally in Winnsboro, Weldon didn’t have a candidate he was voting for, but noted it wasn’t Biden.

“Biden is too much Obama, and we don’t really need another Obama,” he said. “We need someone to come in and bring unity to this country and I don’t know who that is.”

And what about Steyer? He seems alright, Weldon said.

Back in Rock Hill, the canvassers in their brightly colored shirts all piled back into their van, leaving behind tire prints in the muddied grass and plenty of fliers at door steps. Benjamin moved from her porch back towards the front door. She paused and turned back around to waive at a friend driving by in a red pickup truck, before addressing me.

“You’ve got one person saying one thing, one saying another thing, some saying this, one saying that and then you gots all of them saying ‘I’m winning and I’m in the lead,’” Benjamin said. “People will turn off their TV and wait until they can vote against Trump [in November].”

With only days to go before South Carolina votes on Feb. 29, undecided voters couldn’t be more important. But as ads flash on TV screens and fliers fill mailboxes, candidates hope voters like Benjamin will find someone in the fray they like and not stay just stay home. For Biden and Steyer, their campaigns depend on it.

Photo at top: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer addresses a crowd of undecided voters in Winnsboro, South Carolina. The event included a DJ, free food and a video game truck. (Brandon Raphael Dupre/MEDILL)