“Tell me what you like about Joe Biden — the only rule is you can’t say ‘Obama,’ ” Simmons tells them, her sly way of suggesting Biden’s association with the first black president is not enough. “They get mad when I do that,” she added.
With Simmons’s help, Sanders (I-Vt.) — along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — is working frantically to narrow Biden’s commanding lead among South Carolina’s African Americans, who make up just under two-thirds of the state’s Democratic voters.
Rather than attack Biden directly, his rivals are mostly deploying tactics that include church visits and tailgate parties, and holding private conversations and teaming up with young influencers who can spread the word. The Feb. 29 South Carolina primary will be a pivotal sign of minority support three days before Super Tuesday, which itself features 15 states, including California and Texas.
Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg have each faced obstacles attracting support from black voters, a challenge that has been apparent as each has drawn increasingly large and excited, albeit mostly white, crowds to campaign events. Biden has held a wide lead in South Carolina since he entered the race, the beneficiary of wide name recognition, decades of trips to South Carolina and, as Simmons points out, a stamp of approval earned serving in the White House under Barack Obama.
“He does have long-standing, deep and abiding relationships in South Carolina — they’re real,” Columbia Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin said. “There’s some catch-up that everyone else is doing.”
In the interest of catching up, Biden’s rivals are trying to play to whatever strengths they have. Warren is making appeals to black women. Buttigieg and Sanders are aiming at younger activists, largely ceding the older generation to Biden.
The goal for Biden’s rivals, at least for now, is not to overtake him among black voters but to come out of the South Carolina primary with at least a respectable showing, Democratic strategists say — and to be well positioned in case Biden stumbles in Iowa or New Hampshire, which hold votes shortly before South Carolina.
To date, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg have all held events in predominantly black areas of South Carolina — only to have the voters who show up be overwhelmingly white. Biden, in contrast, touts his solid support from African Americans as evidence of his political strength.
“I’m the only person in this race that has support from every constituency that we have,” including young people, Biden told reporters recently. “I have more from African Americans. I have more support from them than anyone. The Democratic Party is a big tent, and in order to win you have to reach out and win parts of all the constituencies.”
The latest Monmouth Poll in South Carolina gave Biden 39 percent support among African American Democratic primary voters, compared with 11 percent for Warren and Sanders and 8 percent for Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is black. Buttigieg is at 1 percent among black voters.
Warren’s counteroffensive includes 40-plus organizers and 10 field offices across the state, including small places like rural Orangeburg, a city of about 13,000 where 75 percent of the residents are black. Away from journalists and rallies, she is holding private sit-downs with influential undecided black women.
Hours before taking the stage at a recent forum at historically black Benedict College, Warren sat down at her hotel for an ask-anything Q&A with a small group of elected black women and other influencers.
“Those women represent hundreds and hundreds of voters in their circles,” said state Rep. Wendy C. Brawley, a Warren supporter who is helping the candidate make such connections.
Warren did not explicitly ask for an endorsement as the attendees munched on muffins and fruit. Rather, she encouraged the women to keep an open mind about her candidacy, answered questions and listened to criticism.
“It was very open — ask anything you want,” said Columbia City Council member Tameika Isaac Devine. “Someone asked why she hadn’t been to South Carolina more. And somebody asked did she feel like she was too liberal to bring the country together.”
It is not clear that Warren’s answers persuaded anyone, but the campaign hopes such events plant seeds. A few hours later, Warren stopped by the historic Bethel AME Church in Columbia for a private meeting with another small group of black voters.
Buttigieg, the youngest candidate at 37, is focusing much of his South Carolina outreach on historically black colleges and universities. He recently hosted a tailgate party at Allen University's homecoming football game.
A DJ hired by the campaign eschewed Buttigieg’s usual rally song — “High Hopes” by the alternative rock band Panic! At the Disco — in favor of rap and hip-hop. “We ain’t playing no ‘High Hopes’ here,” one organizer quipped.
The event was organized in part by Walter A. Clyburn Reed, grandson of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a powerful figure in South Carolina politics. The elder Clyburn has not endorsed a presidential candidate, though he is a longtime friend of Biden’s and has worked with Warren in Congress.
“As you know, 2020 is coming up,” Reed exhorted the small crowd at the Oct. 26 tailgate. “If you didn’t vote in 2016, I understand. If you didn’t vote in 2018, I understand. But in 2020, it’s not a game.”
Reed regularly notes his grandfather’s support for his political activity on social media, sometimes using the hashtag #BlackAndProud4Pete.
Buttigieg likes to cite what he calls the Douglass Plan, an elaborate racial justice proposal he rolled out in July. It would direct a quarter of government contracts to minority businesses and cut the federal and state incarceration rate, among other steps.
Buttigieg persuaded hundreds of prominent black South Carolinians to sign onto the plan even if they are not supporting his candidacy. His campaign then trumpeted these signatures in a way that forced figures such as Devine, for one, to clarify that she was not endorsing Buttigieg.
But as Buttigieg tries to build relationships with black voters, his problems outside South Carolina echo within it. In June, a white police officer in South Bend, where Buttigieg is mayor, shot a black man, setting off weeks of protests.
More recently, Buttigieg distanced himself from a supporter named Steve Patton, a former Chicago city attorney who tried to block the release of a video showing the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, angering many black leaders.
Patton was set to co-host a fundraiser for Buttigieg last month. He was ultimately removed from that role, but Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said the matter should have set off Buttigieg’s “natural radar” much earlier.
“Every time he seems to go three steps forward, something happens . . . and it takes him six steps backwards,” Seawright said of Buttigieg’s outreach to black voters. The campaign, he said, must get “a better handle on the things they can control if they want a better shot of making inroads within the African American community.”
Sanders’s African American backers say his message of revolutionary change has particular relevance for the black community. Sanders surrogates recently took a “Medicare for Y’all” tour through the state, in part to expound on how the candidate’s Medicare-for-all plan would help African Americans.
One Sanders supporter, South Carolina State Rep. Ivory Thigpen, has been touting the Vermont senator to members of his church. In a flier that has been mailed around Columbia, Thigpen says Sanders’s agenda is “driven by compassion: compassion in health care, in the criminal justice system, and economic justice.”
In an interview, Thigpen said Democrats must nominate a candidate who can electrify black voters and others. He suggested that’s not Biden.
“Have you ever been to a Trump rally? You should see the energy,” Thigpen said. “They’re turning over tables, they’re pushing around stuff. It’s a heightened level of excitement. Will the Democratic Party with its nominee be able to match that type of energy?”
Two black candidates in the race, Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have so far failed to show they can generate such energy. (Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick launched his campaign last week.) Harris initially put much of her focus on South Carolina, but after meager results, she has shifted her emphasis to Iowa. Booker has made a significant investment in the Palmetto State, visiting often and hiring respected operatives but has yet to catch on there.
Sanders hopes to do better. The youthful state legislators supporting him hold themselves up as a breakthrough generation, and they say the Vermont senator amounts to the same thing on a national level.
Simmons said her conversations with Biden supporters do not end after she tries to divorce his accomplishments from Obama’s. She goes on to tell them that Sanders may be an unconventional politician, but that is a good thing.
She is a single mother of five and one of the youngest members of the legislature. She is an African American representative in a state that just four years ago flew a Confederate battle flag on state capitol grounds.
“I bring a whole new perspective to the statehouse,” Simmons said. “I am younger. I have the most kids of anybody in the legislature. I’m still working a full-time job by myself, which not a lot of [legislators] do.”
Regarding Sanders, she asked, “What if you can bring fresh eyes to the situation?”