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We asked young Black voters about Biden and the Democrats. Here's what we learned

Vice President Harris takes photos with young voters at South Carolina State University after a campaign rally ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary earlier this month.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Vice President Harris takes photos with young voters at South Carolina State University after a campaign rally ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary earlier this month.

Young Black voters were a key part of the coalition that sent Joe Biden to the White House in 2020. Yet recent polls suggest that some of that support has eroded, with months to go until November's general election.

NPR traveled to South Carolina as Democrats kicked off their primary process and spoke with Black voters under age 35 about their views.

Several themes kept coming up: student debt and college affordability; abortion access; and affordable health care. Among union members, workers' rights were top of mind.

An SCSU drum line performs ahead of the vice president's campaign event on campus.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
An SCSU drum line performs ahead of the vice president's campaign event on campus.

The Biden campaign points to success in many of these areas, and Vice President Harris held an event at a historically Black college just before the primary, where she touted wins for voters, including lowering the price of insulin and college debt forgiveness.

But is that message winning people over? Here's what four young Black voters told us mattered to them and how they were thinking about politics in the year ahead.

Tarmon-Dre Robinson, 24

Growing up in Columbia, S.C., Tarmon-Dre Robinson's family didn't talk a lot about politics. He's from a military family, and the few political conversations he remembers involved health care and the military's insurance system.

Robinson joined the South Carolina National Guard to fund his education, then enrolled at a technical college with plans to transfer to a four-year institution.

Tarmon-Dre Robinson, 24, is a student at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, S.C.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Tarmon-Dre Robinson, 24, is a student at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, S.C.

"I think people should be able to wake up and say, 'Hey, I want to be educated,'" he said. "Having such a high price tag on education, it really knocks some people out of the bucket from ever being able to have that as a possibility for themselves."

These days, Robinson said he tried to stay away from politics as much as possible, and he didn't vote in 2020. He said he doesn't care for the negativity, and while he planned to vote this year, he hadn't decided who he was going to support in South Carolina's primaries.

"This is one of the first times ever in my life that I'm in the middle," he said, adding that he had not decided whether he would participate in the Democratic or the Republican primary.

"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," he said. "I think the problem is saying you're going to do a thing for us and then nothing changes."

Dalaisha Pickens, 18

For Dalaisha Pickens, funding for historically Black colleges is a pressing issue. She is a freshman at Claflin University in Orangeburg.

"HBCUs are the heart of America," she said. "A lot of great talents and creativity and brilliance comes from HBCUs, public and private."

The Biden campaign has been running ads touting its funding for historically Black colleges, and Harris is an alumna of Howard University.

The vice president spoke the day before South Carolina's primary at South Carolina State University — the state's only public HBCU — and detailed her connections to the HBCU community in a way that seemed to resonate with the students.

"Having the vice president come from an HBCU herself, she knows the stories and the challenges we go through," Pickens said, adding that she planned to support Biden in the primary.

Naomi Harris, 22

Naomi Harris, who teaches at a vocational school in Cayce, said she has been inundated with political information already this election season.

She is a member of the Union of Southern Service Workers and is particularly focused on workers' rights. She said former Gov. Nikki Haley and current South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster have been speaking "so bad and ill on unions."

"If you're running for presidency or, like, governor or something, you should be uplifting the people that you need your vote from, instead of down-talking all of them. I don't respect that," she said.

Naomi Harris, 22, is a teacher in Columbia, S.C., and is also part of the Union of Southern Service Workers.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Naomi Harris, 22, is a teacher in Columbia, S.C., and is also part of the Union of Southern Service Workers.

Harris is a self-described socialist, and she declined to say who she was supporting in South Carolina's Democratic primary.

"I don't want to say exactly who I'm voting for, but I love how pro-union they are, and how their campaign is focused on putting the power back with the working class, and so I'm happy that she's running," she said.

The only woman who appeared on the ballot in South Carolina's Democratic primary was author Marianne Williamson.

Harris said that many of her peers were not excited about a potential rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump.

"I don't know anybody in my circle who wants to vote. People feel like if these are the options, they don't want no parts," she said, adding that she felt that was a mistake.

"Our votes count, whether people want to say it or not, our votes actually matter. So you don't go vote, you might as well vote for the person that we don't want in office."

Democratic strategists and activists in the state stress how important the messengers and the medium are in reaching voters like Harris' peers.

Brandon Upson, the executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, emphasized the importance of connecting with young voters in a way that makes sense to them.

"There's a lot more engagement, connection and intentionality that needs to happen to drill deep into our grassroots," he said.

Taleeya Jones, 20

Taleeya Jones was not old enough to participate when voters sent Trump to the White House in 2016. Now, she says she's enthusiastic to vote for the first time, and she's supporting Biden.

"When Donald Trump was elected the first time, I was shaking in my boots. At my age, I couldn't do anything about it," Jones said. "But now that I'm old enough, and I'm able to do something, I'm happy that I can."

Taleeya Jones, 20, and Symia Williamson, 21, students at South Carolina State University, cheer during Vice President Harris' speech in Orangeburg earlier this month.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Taleeya Jones, 20, and Symia Williamson, 21, students at South Carolina State University, cheer during Vice President Harris' speech in Orangeburg earlier this month.

Jones, a student at South Carolina State University, described herself as "comfortable" with the Biden administration's record, particularly on the issue of college affordability.

Biden's initial student debt forgiveness plan was struck down by the Supreme Court. Then the administration developed a repayment plan that has been popular with many borrowers.

Biden's promise to forgive student loans is key for some voting groups, especially young people and Black borrowers. Black women, in particular, are disproportionately burdened by student debt.

"Now that they've paved the way for us to possibly have loan forgiveness, it can help us get through school knowing that whenever we graduate, we don't have to worry about how we're going to do this and do that," she said. "It makes me feel relief."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juana Summers
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.
Vincent Acovino
Sarah Handel
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