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Black voters stood with Biden in 2020. Four years later, he needs their help again

Running a small business has been a “special experience” for Mimi Striplin, the 31-year-old owner of The Tiny Tassel in Charleston.

Striplin started her jewelry company nine years ago and opened her first brick-and-mortar storefront in 2021, where she also sells whimsical clothing designed by her mother and goods made by other Black women-owned businesses. Her local community has helped uplift her business, she said, but she’s also experienced the hard times that come with entrepreneurship, especially now.

When she was invited to meet with President Joe Biden a few weeks ago as part of a small business roundtable ahead of the state’s February 3 primary, she had a simple message for him: See us.

“I wanted him to think about faces like mine when he is speaking on policies and really moving things,” Striplin, who is also Asian American, told CNN.

To win reelection this year, Biden will need Black voters like Striplin – who voted for him in the last presidential election and plan to support him again – to rebuild the coalition that helped propel him to the White House in 2020.

South Carolina’s primary will be the first opportunity Black voters have to voice their support – or displeasure – with Biden since that election.

“I think we’ll get a real chance to see where Joe Biden is, and also get a real chance to see what messages have resonated from the Biden-Harris administration,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist and close ally of Rep. Jim Clyburn.

It’s a challenging path. Biden’s net approval rating has been negative for more than two years. Polls have shown former President Donald Trump beating Biden in key swing states in a hypothetical rematch. And there are signs that Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, is making small gains in some key parts of the Democratic coalition, including among Black voters.

Democrats’ efforts to stem those losses start in South Carolina, which is hosting the first sanctioned primary after the Democratic National Committee overhauled its primary calendar last year to put more diverse states first, a move party members say has given Black voters an early and important voice.

The calendar overhaul, done at Biden’s request, was also seen as a boost to the president, who placed poorly in the 2020 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary before winning by a decisive margin in South Carolina, in large part due to his strong support among Black voters.

In 2020, Biden won 61% of the Black vote, which made up 56% of the Democratic primary electorate, according to CNN exit polling.

Biden and several surrogates have held campaign events across the state. Last weekend, Biden campaigned at a church in Columbia with Clyburn, whose endorsement during the 2020 primary helped seal his victory in the state. The event was interrupted by protesters calling on the president to push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke at a get-out-the-vote event at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Friday, the last day of early voting.

“South Carolina, you are the first primary in the nation, and President Biden and I are counting on you,” Harris said. “Are you ready to make your voices heard?”

For South Carolina Democrats, being the first sanctioned primary isn’t just about putting Biden on the right footing, but a chance to draw attention to local topics after years of watching candidates cater to the problems facing Iowa and New Hampshire voters.

“So what does going first mean? It means more investment in our communities, more attention to our issues,” Christale Spain, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said at a “We Go First” get-out-the-vote event in Walterboro this week.

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former chair of the state Democratic Party, said South Carolina’s new first-in-the-nation status would increase discussion on investment in historically Black colleges and universities, lowering the Black infant mortality rate and the need to tackle racial disparities.

The new calendar also reflects the fact that the state has a good record of picking the eventual nominee, he said. The winners of the last three primaries – Biden, Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama – went on to be the Democratic nominees.

“We made the change because we wanted to make sure that all of the Democrats had a seat at the table,” Harrison said at a recent get out the vote event during an interview with CNN in Hartsville. “We know that the backbone of the Democratic Party has been the African American community.”

Attendees cheer as President Joe Biden speaks during the South Carolina's First in the Nation Dinner at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 27. - Kent Nishimura/AFP/Getty Images
Attendees cheer as President Joe Biden speaks during the South Carolina's First in the Nation Dinner at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 27. - Kent Nishimura/AFP/Getty Images

It will be difficult to judge what success looks like on Saturday. Though Biden is being challenged by Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips and author Marianne Williamson, the president is likely to win handily in what’s expected to be a low turnout primary. But Biden and his allies are still encouraging Democrats to cast ballots in a show of enthusiasm for the president.

Some are heeding the call.

Juanita Hamilton drove nearly two hours from Hilton Head to an event in Summerville this week to help draw attention to early voting, which began January 22, and the importance of the upcoming  election.

Hamilton said her admiration and respect for Biden has only grown since she voted for him in 2020 and she wanted to stand for him the way she felt he’d stood for her and others.

“I’m trying to do a small part,” she said. “If I can be seen by a few young people who are voting for the first time – if they aren’t sure, let me say, ‘Auntie Juanita says come on out and vote.’”

On Saturday afternoon, the state Democratic Party touted increased Black voter turnout in early and absentee voting, saying more than 76% of such ballots cast in the 2024 primary came from Black voters, 13% more than in 2020.

Of the 51,710 early votes cast, including absentee ballots, more than 6,100 came from voters who had never cast a ballot in a Democratic primary, South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley added.

“Before the polls close, and I can say this without any doubt … this primary has been a success,” said Lindsey Green, the state party’s get-out-the-vote director. “This primary is really the latest signal from our president and our national party that Democrats are not just parachuting in at the very last minute to ask for voters from communities of color.”

At another get-out-the-vote event in Charleston, at the famous Hannibal’s Kitchen soul food restaurant, George McCray of Eutawville said he supports Biden because he believes he’s a fair person at his core. He didn’t think Obama would have made Biden his vice president if he wasn’t, he said.

“He thinks before he acts,” McCray said. “He talks to his people and he makes the proper decisions. That’s a person that should stay a president for eight years.”

But Gabriel Fant, a 38-year-old personal trainer and server at Hannibal’s, said she deeply regrets her decision to vote for Biden in 2020. She won’t be voting in the primary and is still deciding what she’ll do in the general election.

“I’m telling Black people: Stay home,” she said.

Fant criticized the argument that Black Americans need to cast a ballot to honor the sacrifices made to secure the right to vote. Withholding her vote would also send a message, she said.

“People say our ancestors died for us to vote, like they sell us that, but it’s really our ancestors made this available as a tool for us to be liberated and move forward,” she said. “So it’s political when you do and it’s political when you don’t.”

The seventh-generation Charleston native said she felt none of the candidates running for president were laying out a clear plan to create a solid economic floor for Black Americans. And she was tired of hearing Biden surrogates tell her about how much he has done for her community.

“If I feel it, you don’t have to tell me,” she said. “I should feel it in my pocket, I should feel it at the gas pump, I should feel that at the grocery store. Everywhere.”

Fant’s more pessimistic view of the economy is common. Just 35% of Americans said they think the economy is doing well or very well, according to a CNN/SSRS poll released Friday. That’s a slight improvement from the 28% of Americans who said the same in the November version of the poll, but well below how people felt before the pandemic. The poll released Friday found that 26% of Americans feel the economy is starting to recover while 48% believe conditions are still deteriorating.

There are some clear indications that the economy has improved since Biden took office.

Black unemployment reached a record low of 4.7% in April 2023 and real wages – earnings adjusted for inflation – have risen. Between 2019 and 2022, the last two years of the Trump administration and the first two years of the Biden administration, real wage growth grew the most for workers in the bottom 10th-percentile, according to a March 2023 report from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Job growth has also been strong. The US added 353,000 jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far surpassing the forecasts from economists. The unemployment rate was 3.7%, marking 24 consecutive months it has been below 4%.

Valerie Wilson, the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, said part of voters’ dissatisfaction with the economy may come from sticker shock over high prices.

But those feelings, particularly in the Black community, may also be a response to long-standing racial disparities.

“Inequality isn’t a new thing, it hasn’t gone away,” Wilson said.

Striplin, of The Tiny Tassel, said she’d seen direct and indirect benefits from Biden’s policies and described him as the best options Democrats have right now. She worried about the alternative, another Trump administration, and said there were days when she feared for her safety when the former president was last in office.

Not voting wasn’t an option for her.

“That’s the most passive way that we can show up in life,” Striplin said. “And for me personally, and our team here, we don’t live in that space of being passive.”

Mimi Striplin, founder of The Tiny Tassel in Charleston, South Carolina, speaks with CNN's Eva McKend. - CNN
Mimi Striplin, founder of The Tiny Tassel in Charleston, South Carolina, speaks with CNN's Eva McKend. - CNN

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Ebony Davis and Kim Berryman contributed to this report.

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