Skip to main content

Bernie Sanders – seen here at a campaign rally at Finlay Park on Feb. 28, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina – vowed to end disproportionately high maternal mortality among African-American women.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Over breakfast at a cavernous megachurch on the outskirts of South Carolina’s largest city, a parade of presidential candidates lined up to make direct pitches to the mostly Black congregants.

Bernie Sanders vowed to end disproportionately high maternal mortality among African-American women. Joe Biden highlighted his friendship with former president Barack Obama. Tom Steyer endorsed reparations for slavery. Elizabeth Warren pledged to vastly improve the criminal-justice system. Amy Klobuchar promised universal voter registration. And Pete Buttigieg outlined a plan to triple the number of Black entrepreneurs.

Isaac Holt Jr. watched the proceedings at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church with a mixture of joy and mild bemusement. In his 26 years as a pastor, he said, he could not recall presidential contenders hustling this hard for his vote.

Story continues below advertisement

“I have never seen so many candidates promising to do so much for Black people,” he said. “I love it. I love it.”

In part, the stepped-up outreach is a function of this year’s hyper-competitive primary field. South Carolina, which becomes the fourth state to vote in the presidential nominating contest on Saturday, is the first with a sizable Black population – some 60 per cent of registered Democrats in the state are African-American.

But it is also a recognition by the party that it has too often taken its most loyal voting demographic for granted. African-Americans gave Hillary Clinton 88 per cent of their support in the 2016 general election, but Black turnout fell by seven points from its historic high in 2012. White voters have favoured the Republican candidate in every presidential contest since the 1970s, meaning Democrats must do everything possible to motivate people of colour to go to the polls.

Conversations with African-American voters in Charleston this week revealed an electorate with a keen sense of its crucial role in choosing the next president, and determined to push the Democrats to put a candidate on the ballot who can credibly deliver on issues that matter to them: From health care to economic opportunity to gun violence to racism in the criminal-justice system.

“Democrats need to realize that Black voters are their largest voting base and most important voting bloc ever,” said Zaylee Butler, a 21-year-old student teacher, as she stood in line for a downtown forum with Mr. Biden. “We need upward economic mobility for African-Americans.”

Ms. Butler was considering voting for Mr. Biden based on his experience as vice-president. But she felt he had become complacent with African-American voters and wasn’t offering concrete plans for her generation. For that, she preferred policies such as those from Mr. Buttigieg on increasing funding for historically Black universities and colleges.

sanders overtakes biden among

african-americans...

Reuters/Ipsos poll of national voters conducted Feb. 19-25

33%

26%

+7

Biden

19%

-10

23%

Previous poll

Current poll

Sanders

... but Dems are underperforming

in the generic ballot

BlackPAC survey of 804 African-American registered voters,

Feb. 2020

Democratic nominee

Trump

3rd party

DK

70%

12%

12%

6%

Note: Obama won 93% of the African-American vote in 2012

sanders on top overall

Among registered Democrats and independents in the

Reuters/Ipsos poll:

Sanders

26%

Biden

15%

Bloomberg

15%

Warren

10%

Buttigieg

10%

Klobuchar

4%

Steyer

3%

Reuters/Ipsos polled 4,439 U.S. adults, including 2,244 who identified as registered Democrats or independents and 446 African Americans. The poll has a credibility interval of between 2 and 5 percentage points.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: reuters/ipsos;

black pac; getty

sanders overtakes biden among

african-americans...

Reuters/Ipsos poll of national voters conducted Feb. 19-25

33%

26%

+7

Biden

19%

-10

23%

Previous poll

Current poll

Sanders

... but Dems are underperforming

in the generic ballot

BlackPAC survey of 804 African-American registered voters,

Feb. 2020

Democratic nominee

Trump

3rd party

DK

70%

12%

12%

6%

Note: Obama won 93% of the African-American vote in 2012

sanders on top overall

Among registered Democrats and independents in the

Reuters/Ipsos poll:

26%

Sanders

Biden

15%

Bloomberg

15%

Warren

10%

Buttigieg

10%

Klobuchar

4%

Steyer

3%

Reuters/Ipsos polled 4,439 U.S. adults, including 2,244 who identified as registered Democrats or independents and 446 African Americans. The poll has a credibility interval of between 2 and 5 percentage points.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: reuters/ipsos;

black pac; getty

sanders overtakes biden among african-americans...

Reuters/Ipsos poll of national voters conducted Feb. 19-25

33%

+7

26%

Biden

19%

-10

23%

Previous poll

Current poll

Sanders

... but Dems are underperforming in the generic ballot

BlackPAC survey of 804 African-American registered voters, Feb. 2020

Democratic nominee

Trump

3rd party

Don’t know

70%

12%

12%

6%

Note: Obama won 93% of the African-American vote in 2012

sanders on top overall

Among registered Democrats and independents in the Reuters/Ipsos poll:

26%

Sanders

Biden

15%

Bloomberg

15%

Warren

10%

Buttigieg

10%

4%

Klobuchar

Steyer

3%

Reuters/Ipsos polled 4,439 U.S. adults, including 2,244 who identified as registered Democrats or independents and 446 African Americans. The poll has a credibility interval of between 2 and 5 percentage points.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: reuters/ipsos; black pac; getty

The former vice-president started the race with hefty polling leads in South Carolina and among African-Americans nationally. Virtually everyone in the state credited this strength to Mr. Biden’s association with Mr. Obama and other relationships with Black leaders, including long-time South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn.

Story continues below advertisement

But many here said Mr. Biden rested on his laurels while other candidates out-hustled him. Mr. Sanders overtook him among Black voters nationally in the most recent Ipsos poll. And both the Vermont senator and Mr. Steyer, a billionaire who has poured some of his fortune into blanketing South Carolina with ads, have narrowed the gap in the state.

Alex Seabrook, 23, evinced a personal reason to support Mr. Sanders. Neither the university he attends nor his part-time IT job offer health insurance, and he makes too little to afford the US$500 monthly premiums or US$2,000 deductible he would have to shell out for an Obamacare policy. Mr. Sanders’s promise of a Canadian-style single-payer government health-care system would solve the problem.

“I currently don’t have health care; I would basically go bankrupt if anything happened to me,” he said on the sidelines of a Sanders rally.

For Jason Glover, a 28-year-old barber, Mr. Sanders’s pledges to bring in a US$15 minimum wage and legalize marijuana both resonated. Many of his friends have faced possession charges, which are disproportionately laid against people of colour, and others are barely scraping by economically.

“Once you get convicted, it’s hard to move forward, it’s hard to get work,” he said. “People are tired of hearing Trump every day talking about how many jobs there are. People have jobs, but they aren’t getting paid well.”

Despite his slowing momentum, Mr. Biden has held onto his lead in South Carolina. An Emerson College poll this week gave him a 16-point edge over Mr. Sanders.

Story continues below advertisement

“The question is, who’s qualified? We need somebody who knows how to politic. Biden helped Obama put a lot of things in place,” said Thomasina Greene, a 70-year-old retired radio personality supporting Mr. Biden, as she cheered him on outside a televised candidates debate.

She also recounted her own tale of Mr. Biden’s ability to connect. After meeting him at an event in September, she kept in touch with his campaign. When her mother died in December, she said, Mr. Biden sent her flowers.

Pieces of America’s racist history are everywhere in Charleston, a picturesque city of cobblestone alleyways and flower-draped historical buildings. It was a primary port for enslaved Africans brought to the country and the scene of the first shots of the Civil War. There is a monument to Confederate soldiers on its waterfront.

Other reminders are more contemporary.

Near the city’s central square is Mother Emanuel church, where a white supremacist gunned down nine congregants in 2015.

Sitting in his office, around the corner from a gold cross adorned with photos of the people killed, Pastor Eric Manning recalled standing in the cold rain for five hours in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama.

Story continues below advertisement

“There was a sense of pride, there was a sense of ‘we have arrived, we have gotten there.’ Only to wake up the day after and find out that it’s now become even more vicious and hateful than we ever thought,” he said.

Today, he points out, gun-control legislation languishes in the Republican-controlled Senate, legislators have tried to roll back Obamacare and a man who once said there were “very fine people” amid a mob of white nationalists in Charlottesville sits in the White House.

“There is a greater cry for all ages, all races to be involved in this particular presidential campaign,” said Mr. Manning, a slim man with a white goatee, wiry glasses and a blue bow-tie.

At Mount Moriah, Rev. Dr. Holt struck a hopeful note. A combination of Black voters asserting their power and presidential candidates working harder to win them over, he said, could prove an unstoppable force.

“I think African-Americans have a tendency to feel like we’re not involved, which leads to apathy,” he said. “But if we work together as a voting bloc, we can help shape the agenda. They realize that we have an under-served power. This is the first time in my lifetime I’ve seen it like this.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies