CHARLESTON, SC - It’s hard for Darryl Thompson to escape the onslaught of political messaging ahead of South Carolina’s Democratic primary election.
“It’s everywhere, it’s on social media, it’s on broadcast … everywhere you want, it’s there,” he says, including on the radio of the truck he drives for a living.
But Thompson isn’t tuning out. He’s actually “watching to see who has the better deal” addressing the issues that concern him most, such as the incarceration levels in his state, and the high costs of health care and college tuition.
But there is one thing he says he wants more than anything else.
“I want somebody who can beat President Trump,” he told Voice of America while watching the latest debate among the remaining Democrats in the race for the nomination.
The contest to nominate a Democrat to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in the November general election comes to South Carolina on Saturday. For weeks, candidates have courted African American voters like Thompson who make up a majority of Democratic Party voters in the state.
For Thompson, his mind is made up, and he says the choice is clear.
“Bernie Sanders … all day long,” he declares without hesitation. “He has the momentum.”
While Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist fresh off victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, is the current front-runner for Democrats nationally, in South Carolina former Vice President Joe Biden has led recent polls of likely voters.
Businessman Tom Steyer is also polling strongly, while former South Bend, Indiana , Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar are all trailing after mixed results in earlier contests.
“I think some of the things that Bernie Sanders says has sparked interest in some people, but as you start to dig into those facts, some of the things that Bernie Sanders says actually will not work,” says Michelle Nelson, an adjunct professor with the Medical University of South Carolina. “That’s why we need Joe Biden. Joe Biden has been there. He knows how it works.”
While attending a National Action Network civil rights breakfast, hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton at her church, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist in Charleston, Nelson had the opportunity to hear from many of the presidential candidates in person.
She says this is the most consequential election of her life.
“That’s why we really need to get behind Joe Biden because he is the only candidate that has the strength, the capacity, and the know-how to take on and beat Donald Trump.”
“I’m looking at Bloomberg, surprisingly, because I want to win,” Georgetown, South Carolina travel company owner Vanessa Greene told VOA. Even though former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, pockets of support for him reveal a Democratic electorate that has yet to rally around a single candidate.
“Unfortunately, Bloomberg isn’t here but it makes a difference when you are able to kind of be in the same room with someone,” Greene said before admitting she hasn’t fully made up her mind, and was waiting in line to attend a town hall campaign event with Biden just a few days before she cast her ballot.
“I think people really want to find someone who the can wrap themselves around, so I think they will give him a good hearing,” she said about Biden.
“The black vote is 50, 60 percent of the Democratic strength here, and that’s going to be the interesting thing in the primary — where does that black vote go?” asks University of South Carolina professor Charles Bierbauer who says the Palmetto state is “everything” to Biden, who, as vice president, served alongside America's first black president, Barack Obama, but has yet to win a nominating contest this year.
“He [Biden] has not shown well in the first three caucuses and primaries. Second in Nevada. He has to win someplace, and this has always been the place,” says Bierbauer, who also covered politics as a senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
“Politicians like to refer to that as a firewall, somewhere, something that will stop the spread of, in this case, the Bernie Sanders campaign.”
South Carolina is also an “open” primary, which means voters from either party can vote for a candidate in the election. With Trump as the presumptive nominee for Republicans, some activists are encouraging Republican voters to turn out and vote on the Democratic side for Sanders as a way to create chaos for Democrats, and blunt a strong showing for Biden in South Carolina.
“I wouldn’t mind Joe Biden … the thing about the Democratic Party is we have to make up our mind,” says voter Darryl Thompson.
While they disagree on the best candidate, Democrats in South Carolina seek party unity moving forward.
“We can’t have so many of us scattered,” says Thompson. “All of us have to come together.”
“It’s very important that we unite as African Americans, and we unite as Democrats to nominate a candidate that can be elected,” says Michelle Nelson, the medical school professor.
Nelson added: “Our votes on Saturday are going to speak to other states like Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia” which hold contests several days later in the March 3 Super Tuesday primary election event. It’s the date when the largest number of states or territories hold presidential preference contests, and a large numbers of minority voters will head to the polls.
“We need someone strong enough to put Donald Trump out of office,” Nelson emphasized.
Trump reached office with South Carolina’s help, winning the state decisively in the 2016 election.