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Rising in the Polls: How One Campaign is Winning South Carolina Voters- One Conversation at a Time

Sen. Kamala Harris listening to a voter during her Feb. 2019 town hall in Columbia, SC
Thelisha Eaddy/SC Public Radio
Sen. Kamala Harris listening to a voter during her Feb. 2019 town hall in Columbia, SC

The second round of democratic presidential debates is a little over two weeks away. There are over two dozen candidates in the running for the party’s nomination. In South Carolina, voters have been courted by almost all of the candidates, since the beginning of the year.

California senator Kamala Harris has visited the state nine times, most recently in the Pee Dee region, a mostly rural area. During her July 6-7 visit, Harris held at meet-and-greet in Darlington; town halls in Florence and Horry County; and also stopped by an African-American owned business in Marion.

It’s all a part of her campaign’s effort to meet “voters where they're at on the ground in their communities,” said Laphonza Butler, Senior advisor to the Kamala Harris Campaign.

“She has heard from voters all across the country and particularly in South Carolina about issues of the safety of their children; health care and the quality of education.”

Butler has campaigned for Harris in South Carolina, and has been instrumental in shaping the Senator’s campaign team and strategy there; which includes cutting through the dialogue of the crowded field and potential barrier of running against presumed front runners with more name-recognition by talking to as many voters as possible.

“Vice president Biden; everyone knows he was the vice president to President Obama. This is his third time running for president. He has been in office and serving in a place of public service for more than four decades. Senator Warren has done an incredible job, working on behalf of the 99% for decades as well. I think what we’re seeing in early polls is a real curiosity about Senator Harris- people who are inspired by what their hearing but want to hear more.”

Before the June debates, Butler said regardless of poll numbers (at the time) that put Harris trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Harris campaign felt like it was in a strong place.

“I think the more people in South Carolina, and folks across the country, get to know who Senator Harris is

the more people in South Carolina get to know who Senator Harris is... I expect those numbers to go up.

and how she thinks about solving everyday problems with government, I think expect those numbers to go up.”

With a viewership of over 18 million, the former state prosecutor challenged fellow candidates on healthcare, race and other topics, during the June 27 live event. Afterwards, poll numbers did go up, according to CNBC:

Harris’ average support jumped to 14.7% on Wednesday, up from 7% on June 25, the day before the two-day debate started. An average of 27.2% of respondents supported Biden as of Wednesday, a drop from 32.1% on June 25.

The second round of democratic debates is two weeks away, where again, millions are expected to tune in.

Fish, Selfies & Politics: Clyburn's Fish Fry Draws Diverse Crowd of Voters- Here Are Their Concerns.

June 24, 2019

2019 Jim Clyburn World-Famous Fish Fry
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio
2019 Jim Clyburn World-Famous Fish Fry

If you want to know what issues voters in South Carolina are concerned about, attending one of the Democratic Party state convention events this past weekend would have been a great place to start.

Thousands of people, who will help reduce the staggering number of democratic presidential hopefuls through the state’s first-in-the-South primary in February, attended Rep. Jim Clyburn's (D-SC) "world famous" fish fry and several meet-and-greets with candidates over the course of the weekend. Through interviews with several of them, South Carolina Public Radio learned their concerns were as diverse as the candidates themselves.

"I am interested in what they will do about the economy, specifically, the student loan debt," said Kiana Jeffcoat, a 35-year-old state employee.

"We're having trouble getting home loans and just progressing further because the dollar doesn't stretch as far as it can and [our student loan debt] it’s counted against us."

Jeffcoat’s concern about college debt is a rising issue for people in South Carolina. According to a recent report, the average student loan debt in the state is now over $36,000, a 5.9% increase from the last year's average.

Other fish fry attendees wanted to hear candidates talk about what they would do to help the more people afford healthcare.

Fish Fry 2019: (L to R) Will, Hannah and Elton Forrester
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio
Fish Fry 2019: (L to R) Will, Hannah and Elton Forrester

"Healthcare is a disaster," said Elton Forrester, a registered Republican from Chapin. "We do need a national plan, but one more thought out than maybe the last one."

This was Forrester's first time attending the fish fry. His children Hannah and Will were with him. Elton said he was there for hope.

"The sad fact is people are working longer because they have got to keep their insurance and it’s not freeing up jobs for young people to get in there. It's just a stagnated thing in society."

Roughly 7,000 attended the fish fry. The event dates back to 1992 when Clyburn hosted the event as thank to volunteers who helped him win his first congressional race. Since then, the event has grown into a "world famous" affair, outgrown previous venues in Columbia, and is now considered a must-attend event for both voters and politicians, especially this year.

In 2020, South Carolina will be the first southern state to hold its Democratic primary. The results of that February 29 election could indicate how the rest of the party's electorate will vote. On top of that, the state's Democratic Party is home to a large, and loyal, African-American voting bloc; but also a growing and diverse electorate.

"Most people are not talking about what occurred in November of 2018," said Trav Robertson, Chairman of the state Democratic Party. "We had right over 1.7 million people vote and almost a million of those were women. Two-hundred thousand more women than men voted."

Robertson also said the party added 200 to 250 thousand sporadic African-American voters.

“We had 65% of the electorate in November. Between 1.1 and 1.2 million of a 1.7 million turnout were women and people of color. That is why [candidates] are coming to our state.”

Since the beginning of the year, candidates have been cris-crossng the state, visiting churches, colleges, bars -- and everything in between -- in both urban and rural areas.

Twenty-one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls attended this year's fish fry, making it the largest political event of the cycle so far. Each candidate had about a minute to successfully pitch themselves to that growing, diverse population, Robertson spoke about.

Bernice Mitchell, SaBrina Macon and Kayci Macon represent three generations of Palmetto state voters. 

Fish Fry 2019: (L to R) Will, Kayci Macon, SaBrina Macon, Bernice Mitchell
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio
Fish Fry 2019: (L to R) Will, Kayci Macon, SaBrina Macon, Bernice Mitchell

They waited for the start of the fish fry under the shade of a small tree in the parking lot of Edventure Childrens Museum. It was their first time attending the event.

"I wanted to experience it," said Mitchell, a Columbia resident. "I never really been to a rally like this, so I just decided that we'll come here and enjoy ourselves and represent."

Mitchell is the grandmother of the group. Her daughter SaBrina said she was undecided, when it came to the candidates and wanted to hear from each personally to "hopefully make a decision, if not today, then later on." SaBrina's daughter Kayci, the youngest of the three, acknowledged the amount of time needed to research, at the time, almost two dozen candidates. She also shared concerns about former Vice President Biden's recent comments about segregationists.

"He wants to make sure that we agree in the future to work with people who have opposing views with us, and I think that's a very dangerous idea, with the climate we have now," Kayci said. "I think other candidates are speaking more wisely about racial issues."

Another fish fry first-timer was 24-year-old Courtland Sutton, who said she's concerned about student debt and healthcare, particularly for young women. After the event, Sutton was one of many who waited to talk with the candidates; she took a selfie with Vice President Biden.

24-year old Courtland Sutton takes a selfie with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Credit Thelisha Eaddy/ SC Public Radio
24-year-old Courtland Sutton takes a selfie with former Vice President Joe Biden.

"I just wanted to tell him that I hope he does well," the Charleston resident said. "He's somebody who has experience -- has done this before -- and that's something that important to me.”

On the other end of that spectrum is 65-year-old Isaac Simmons of Summerville. This was his second fish fry.

"A lot of my friends are in a certain camp due to history, and history is good but I think it’s time for a change," he said.

Simmons served in the United States Army for 24 years and recently retired from federal service. He said he was listening to some of the newer candidate's views on topics.

"They align with some of my views as far as what we’re going to do for the average working man."

What They Are Saying

Student Loan Debt: "We're having trouble getting home loans and just progressing further because the dollar doesn't stretch as far as it can and [our student loan debt is] counted against us." - Kiana Jeffcoat

Affordable Healthcare: "If it wasn't for me being a veteran, I would be totally messed up as far as healthcare is concerned."

Honesty and Integrity: "I just think with this current administration, we have lost credibility around the world."