Scenes Around South Carolina: Voters on the Democratic presidential primary

By the Medill Explores South Carolina Reporting Team
Medill Reports

Medill reporters are traveling throughout South Carolina this week to ask the state’s voters their thoughts about the Democratic presidential primary and which candidates will receive their support. Here is a look at what they found during their first day of reporting and observing.

Brothers Demetrick and Jamaal Johnson talk about politics ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)

By Emine Yücel

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Rosemont, a neighborhood that lies between North Charleston and downtown, Demetrick Johnson, his brother Jamaal and some extended family members were drinking beer in front of their family house. The waves of laughter coming from the wood porch could be heard all the way down Delano Avenue.

A light conversation about the warm weather quickly turned into shouts as the two brothers started talking about politics ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary.

“I don’t like Biden because he passed the three-strike law and he locked black people up,” said Demetrick Johnson, 42, of the former vice president, before turning to one of his rivals, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I got more confidence in Warren. I feel she’s going to disrupt things. Women right now ain’t playing no games.”

As the five men started talking over each other, Jamaal Johnson, 31, said, “Man, speak for yourself. I’m voting for Biden. Stop hating on my next president. He’s gonna change things.”

The argument continued for about 10 minutes. The tension was lowered by Johnson’s mom, who came out of the house to tell them to be quiet.

“It’s a house divided here,” said Demetrick Johnson. “We never talk about elections ‘cause we got bigger things to worry about in the ­’hood. This is the first time I heard we voting for different people.”

By Samone Blair

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A Pete Buttigieg volunteer arrived in a Food Lion parking lot north of downtown Charleston to prepare for a canvassing session. Most of her friends are also supporters  of the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor who is running for president, but had decided to canvass in affluent Mount Pleasant, instead of Charleston, which has residents of all socioeconomic classes.

She pointed across the street to a new school and explained that she had visited it recently with her grandchildren. “This area has been getting a lot better, but they’re trying to figure out how to not kick too many people out of their homes,” she explained.

After finding the campaign staffer in charge of the event, it soon became clear that she was the only volunteer who had shown up. When the staffer said she wanted to visit some houses in nearby “The Neck” in order to reach a diverse group of voters, the white volunteer hesitated and asked, “Won’t that get a bit dicey?”

The staffer and the volunteer drove to the Rosemont neighborhood, which is predominantly black and working class. Barely getting out of the car on Delano Ave, the staffer said they were choosing another neighborhood to visit. She said there were too many gates around, making it difficult to canvass.

It was true that about half of the homes had gates, but groups of neighbors sat in their yards enjoying the mild Sunday afternoon. Instead of taking the chance to walk over and chat with the potential supporters, the staffer and volunteer rode off in their Jeep to another, mostly white neighborhood.

Kia Williams, a student at the College of Charleston, completes her homework Feb. 9 at in her office at Stern Student Center. (Areeba Shah/MEDILL)

By Areeba Shah

CHARLESTON, S.C. —  On a Sunday night, when the College of Charleston remains packed with students rushing to complete their homework, Kia Williams, 19, sits in her student government office on the fourth floor of the Stern Student Center, her eyes glued to a laptop screen. 

She’s working on a presentation for a class, but even with her busy schedule as a business administration major, she keeps up with the news cycle because “it’s not cute to not know.”

The surface of her black laptop is covered with stickers. “Repro rights = LGBTQ rights,” says one. “Consent will get you laid,” says another. And then there is one in support of Rep. Joe Cunningham, the first Democrat in 40 years elected to Congress from South Carolina’s 1st District. 

“It’s kind of weird,” she said, after explaining that she gets her scoop about politics from “The Daily,” a New York Times podcast, “that there is such a division between moderates and progressives, seeing how everyone is sort of abandoning ideals to fall into one of those two categories.”

She feels overwhelmed by the field of 11 Democratic candidates, and doesn’t know which one she will choose. As she sees it, they all have merits and downsides.

“Not Trump,” Williams said. “That’s it. That’s my whole political opinion. Just not him.”

Second Presbyterian Church hosts its weekly Sunday morning service located in downtown Charleston. (Shirin Ali/MEDILL)

By Shirin Ali

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Walls painted bleach white. Pews lined with dark blue velvet. Pointed ceilings as high as the sky The main event at Second Presbyterian Church’s Sunday service begins slowly as small children dressed in their Sunday best walk towards the altar. They begin to sing in unison a song that declares, “Jesus loves me.”

One verse says we can all “overcome evil with good.”

The children dance along to their hymns, preaching kindness and love for all, creating a temporary utopia within the church.

Yet, just outside these church walls love or kindness is hard to spot as the United States president vilifies his critics, pursues personal and political gain, and manipulates the fears of millions of Americans.

The world created at 10:30 a.m. in downtown Charleston church seems subversive, fueled by nothing more than innocent oblivion.

As campaign strategists around the country scramble to create a winning concept for their candidates, perhaps these children ought to be used as inspiration. Simply being good can overcome any loud, angry and divisive evil.

A signed photo of former Vice President Joe Biden with Rev. James Keeton Jr.’s two young sons and other members of the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal congregation sits on the Charleston pastor’s desk. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)

By Maura Turcotte

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Still garbed in his black gown after presiding over Sunday morning service, Pastor James Keeton Jr. leaned over his office desk.

Several months ago, he said, a reporter had told him that Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg would have a hard time winning in South Carolina because of his same-sex marriage. Among some religious voters in the state, the matter still sparks debate.

“I don’t know, Iowa was an eye opener,” Keeton said. “But I do believe that the concepts of marriage will be looked at a lot closer in South Carolina than in other places in the country.”

On the desk sat a signed photo of former Vice President Joe Biden with Keeton’s two young sons and other members of the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal congregation. Keeton described Biden, who attended a church service here last summer, as approachable and down to earth.

“He has worked to help the working class, be it black, white, Latino,” the pastor added. “He has done a marvelous job.”

Even so, Keeton hasn’t endorsed any Democratic candidate ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.

“Not yet. Not yet,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s still too early.”

By Seb Peltekian

WINNSBORO, S.C. — The owner of Restaurant Next Door — yes, that’s its name — stood on the sidewalk in front of the building. Her frustration was clear. The street had been closed to traffic and she felt sure that it was affecting business.

Her adult daughter served us coffee and hummingbird cake (a traditional Southern dessert) and noted that most of the people walking by were from out of town. “Probably from Newberry or Columbia. I can tell. I live in Columbia,” she said. She told us that most people in Winnsboro, a small town roughly 30 miles north of Columbia, supported former vice president Joe Biden. His sister had done at campaign stop at the restaurant recently.

She wasn’t sure why Tom Steyer, the California hedge fund billionaire, was stopping in town.

But it made sense in the context of Steyer’s longshot bid for the Democratic nomination.

Winnsboro is rural, largely African-American, and has unemployment rates higher than the state average — and nearly double the national average — due in part to President Trump’s trade tariffs.

Steyer promises reparations to the descendants of slaves, to invest in rural infrastructure, and a $22 an hour minimum wage. A recent poll showed him getting 18% of the vote in South Carolina. When he spoke at the rally on Sunday, it seemed that most of those listening were campaign staffers and community leaders. Still, enthusiasm and hopes ran high.

By Brandon Dupre

WINNSBORO, S.C. — The “Get Stuffed Charleston!” food stand was popular with the crowd on a chilly Sunday evening. The seats near the stage, where Democratic presidential contender Tom Steyer would speak in less than an hour, remained empty, but the line for grilled chicken and baked beans steadily grew.

A video game trailer lined with TVs stood opposite the stage, the sounds of NBA 2K basketball competing with sizzling chicken and DaBaby’s BOP booming through a DJ’s speakers. “Please come towards the stage,” said the DJ to a crowd of more than 100 people. They milled around as if at a town fair, wondering what to look at next.

For the longshot candidate who is barely competing anywhere else, this is what going all-in on South Carolina looks like. “It’s usually a ghost town out here on Sundays,” said a waitress at a coffee shop a half-block away. “But people are out today.”

Along with his sister, Eddie Gregory (left) came to meet Rep. Joe Cunningham to discuss problems faced by people with Down syndrome. (Anne Snabes/MEDILL)

By Anne Snabes

JAMES ISLAND, S.C. — Paula Byers and Eddie Gregory, sister and brother, came to meet Rep. Joe Cunningham on Sunday so they could tell him about problems faced by people with Down syndrome, according to Byers. The siblings also wanted to support Cunningham and add to the numbers at his event.

After the Democrat, first elected in 2018, spoke with the small crowd, he welcomed conversation.

Gregory has Down syndrome and was representing the National Down Syndrome Society. Byers and Gregory wanted to talk to Cunningham about, for example, a pay issue that members of the Down syndrome community face. Byers told me that in some states, employers can receive a voucher from the government that allows them to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

The two siblings spoke to me at a sheltered picnic table. Gregory wore a Pete Buttigieg sticker on his sweatshirt. Byers said she and Gregory support the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor in South Carolina’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary. She noted that Buttigieg was in the military and is “extremely intelligent.”

“He is kind, passionate person,” she added. “He doesn’t scream and yell and call people names.”

But Byers said that if Buttigieg does not win the nomination, she and Gregory will support the Democratic candidate, no matter who.

Correction: Eddie Gregory was representing the National Down Syndrome Society.