South Carolina: Chris Salley is exactly the type of voter Joe Biden can’t afford to lose.
Smart, progressive and passionate, the 31-year- old was a rising star in the South Carolina Democratic Party until he left in October: angered by the president’s response to the war in Gaza; concerned Biden is too old for another term; feeling like young, black voters were not being heard.
When the Democrats hold their first presidential primary race in his home state on Saturday, he plans not to vote, describing it as a “coronation” of the incumbent “rather than a truly democratic contest”.
Asked about the prospect of a rematch between Biden and Donald Trump in November, his answer is consistent with that of many other Americans.
“It’s the election nobody wanted, but everybody’s getting,” says the former chair of the Anderson County Democrats in the state’s north-west.
The Democrats’ first presidential nominating contest of 2024 does indeed feel like coronation, with an 81-year-old president many Americans fear can’t beat Trump, or won’t last another four years if he does.
Sure, there are other candidates – Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips and self-help guru Marianne Williamson – but the incumbent has the backing, and the resources, of the Democratic establishment. To that end, the others don’t stand a chance.
But this week’s primary also contains warning signs for a political leader who already faces record-low approval ratings and deep scepticism about his ability to do the job.
Throughout South Carolina – a traditionally conservative state whose black voters helped Biden secure the presidential nomination in 2020 – feelings towards the president are mixed.
Many raised economic anxieties about the soaring cost of living in America, where wages are not keeping pace with the price of food, fuel or furniture.
Some raised fears about Trump returning to the White House and were coming out to vote against the former president – not necessarily in favour of the current one. And others were so disillusioned by the choices on offer, or weren’t planning to vote at all.
“All I know is that it’s likely to be Trump and Biden (at the general election in November) and I don’t want to vote for any of them,” says Kathy Wilson, a 36-year-old conservation worker living in Charleston.
“I just want a level-headed candidate: ideally a Democrat who isn’t too far left, but I would even vote for a Republican that wasn’t so far right and willing to listen to views on both sides.
“Also, can’t there be an age limit, where we cut off politicians from serving after 75?”
South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright argues that the Biden administration has accomplished much over the past four years, and that “Joe Biden is the only person to have beaten Donald Trump, so I think that says a lot”.
But he acknowledges that the president could “double down and triple down” when it comes to articulating his achievements and his vision for the future.
There’s certainly plenty to talk about – record-low unemployment rates; large-scale investments in infrastructure; efforts to reduce student loan debt – but the key is selling that message so that voters continue to show up for him.
But what if, somehow, Trump doesn’t win the nomination or ends up dropping out of the race? Or what if Biden has some kind of health scare that requires another candidate to step in? Is there a Plan B for the Democrats?
“You don’t activate or concern yourself with a Plan B when you have a very strong Plan A,” Seawright replies.
“Most of us feel very confident about the ability and the political will of this president to be able to deliver on what he has promised. That is the Joe we know.”
South Carolina was also a test of Biden’s standing among a coalition of voters who helped propel him to power in the first place: young people and the black community.
This time four years ago, Biden’s attempt to win the presidential nomination was on life support after a poor performance against progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders and Democratic rising star Pete Buttigieg in the first two primary contests.
But after coming a dismal fourth in the Iowa caucuses and then slipping to fifth in the New Hampshire primaries, Biden won the endorsement of South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, the state’s most influential Democrat, and in turn, the black community.
This gave him the momentum he needed to revive his campaign ahead of Super Tuesday – when the largest number of states hold their presidential primaries take place – and eventually win the White House.
Biden’s 2020 success in South Carolina, coupled with its diverse population, was partly why the Democrats decided to make South Carolina the first US state to hold a primary race for the party this year.
Iowa used to have that honour, followed by New Hampshire, but after a chaotic 2020 Iowa caucus filled with irregularities and delayed results, the Democratic National Committee rearranged the 2024 primary calendar at Biden’s urging.
But much has changed since 2020. Indeed, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released last month showed that Biden’s failure to consolidate support in key parts of the coalition that elected him in 2020 had left him narrowly trailing Trump, 39 per cent to 37 per cent.
In another ominous sign: 17 per cent said they would support an unwanted third-party candidate.
Salley is among them. The most high-profile third-party candidate is Robert F Kennedy, the nephew of the former president Robert F Kennedy and the cousin of Biden’s US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy.
But Salley says he is likely to vote for another, lesser-known choice: US philosopher, theologian and progressive activist Cornel West.
While third-party candidates don’t have much chance of winning, they can bleed votes from the main parties and make a difference in an extremely tight race.
“I love voting, but I need to vote based on my values, and that’s the vote that will allow me to sleep at night,” Salley says.
“I’m like so many other Americans who believed that Biden was the guy at one time to get the job done. But moving forward, it is definitely time for a new generation of leaders.”
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