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The message matters to young Black voters weighing Biden-Harris ticket


Black voters helped lift President Biden and Vice President Harris into the White House three years ago. And one big question for this political season is whether Black voters and young voters will show up again this November across the country with the same strength they did in 2020. Today we get a clue as South Carolina votes in the state's first-in-the-nation Democratic primary. My co-host Juana Summers is there and brings us this story.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: We met Kambrell Garvin near a massive construction site just off a long stretch of highway.

Tell us about where we are right now outside this job site.

KAMBRELL GARVIN: Absolutely. So welcome to Blythewood, a small town just outside of Columbia, S.C. And we're at - outside of - on the street corner of the Scout Motors plant, which is a multibillion-dollar investment here in South Carolina...

SUMMERS: Thirty-two years old, he's a Democrat representing Richland County in South Carolina's state House. And the vast stretch of land behind us will one day be home to a $2 billion Scout Motors electric vehicle plant. Garvin said it's expected to bring 4,000 new jobs to the area.

GARVIN: So the Biden administration, through their Inflation Reduction Act, really gave manufacturers - EVs - those companies, it really gave them an incentive to build. And quite honestly, had it not been for the investment that President Biden made, I don't think that this plant would be here in ruby-red South Carolina.

SUMMERS: It's a tangible example of what Biden's presidency has delivered to the state, a promise kept to the voters who trusted him in 2020. But some recent polling shows Biden underperforming with Black voters, particularly Black men and young voters, compared to last time. Some Democrats also worry that the high death toll in Gaza due to Israel's war with Hamas might fuel frustration among young voters, causing them to turn away from Biden. Biden has been confronted by protesters on the issue recently, including here in South Carolina. Garvin said one of the president's challenges isn't his agenda or his record. It's how the campaign communicates it.

GARVIN: So I think that there's work to be done, especially as it relates to President Biden coming in and really attracting people like myself - young, African American, male, Southern. So I think it goes back to telling the story. When you tell a story and give people a reason to show up and vote, I think that they will.

SUMMERS: And the story that Democrats are telling hasn't won over some of those young voters yet.

TAMANDRE ROBINSON: This is one of the first times ever in my life that I'm in the middle.

SUMMERS: That's Tamandre Robinson (ph). He's 24 and a student at Midlands Technical College. Four years ago, Robinson didn't vote. But this year, he's sorting through his options, and he's open to supporting a candidate from any party. He told me his top issues are college affordability, universal health care and unity.

ROBINSON: You know, am I looking at a person for their character? Does character truly change America or does good policy change America? None of those questions are being answered. It's just, choose me. No, choose me. So it's complicated.

SUMMERS: We talked to him just a few days before the Democratic primary.

ROBINSON: When you come to the Black community and you speak to us, and you say, hey, it's our vote that you want, you should come with things that are going to impact and change our lives. I think the problem is saying you're going to do a thing for us and then nothing changes.


SUMMERS: When Vice President Kamala Harris made her ninth trip to South Carolina as vice president, she rallied voters at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Her speech, a day before the election, focused on the things the administration promised and delivered - canceling some student loan debt, lowering the cost of insulin, increasing federal funding to HBCUs like this one.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Who sits in the White House, it matters. And in this election, we each, each one of us, we face a question. What kind of country do we want to live in?

SUMMERS: That's a message that resonated with Delacia Pickens (ph), 18 years old and a student at neighboring Claflin University. She is voting for the first time and plans to support Biden and Harris, who are running virtually unopposed.

DELACIA PICKENS: I think we - more young people could be more active when it comes to voting and politics, and I feel like if we had more options and choices, that more young people would be more involved.

SUMMERS: Her friend Janaya Morton (ph), who's 18, says it is also about civic education and access to information.

JANAYA MORTON: I will say that we're not the most educated, given that, you know, people don't know where to go. You had to take the steps on your own to come here and learn.

SUMMERS: That information gap among young voters is a red flag for Brandon Upson. He's the executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network. Some of that, he said, can be attributed to the nature of the race. It's just a different landscape than in 2020.

BRANDON UPSON: It has been general knowledge that President Biden is just going to walk into the nomination, so there's been no need to invest in communities to make sure that they know that there's a primary.

SUMMERS: When it comes to reaching young voters, Upson made the case that part of the problem is strategic - where and how the message is delivered. He pointed out the fact that many young people aren't getting their news from traditional media. They are extremely online.

UPSON: So there's a lot more engagement, connection and intentionality that needs to happen to drill deep into our grassroots. That's not happening right now.

SUMMERS: He's talking about voters like Naomi Harris (ph). She's 22 and teaches at a vocational school, and she's a part of the Union of Southern Service Workers. She told me that few of her peers are excited about the primary.

NAOMI HARRIS: I don't know anybody in my circle who want to vote. Like, people - like, they feel like if these are the options, they don't want to - they don't want no parts.

SUMMERS: Does that worry you at all when you hear people say that they're just...

HARRIS: Yeah. I hate that because it's stupid. Like, our votes count.

SUMMERS: Biden allies acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm for this largely uncontested primary, and they caution against overanalyzing the results, which may not be representative of the broader Black electorate that Biden needs to win in battleground states in November. But with its new first-in-the-nation status, South Carolina's primary will give us an early sense of what young Black voters have to say this year. Juana Summers, NPR News, Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.