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Rep. Jim Clyburn helped Biden win young Black voters in 2020. This time, they're not listening.

Clyburn, D-S.C., has been campaigning for Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary. His frustration with young voters is palpable.
SCSU Student Olivia Ratliff speaks during a round table in Orangeburg, S.C., on Jan. 19, 2024:.
South Carolina State University student Olivia Ratliff speaks at a roundtable in Orangeburg on Jan. 19.Crush Rush for NBC News

SUMTER, S.C. — Rep. Jim Clyburn was preaching to the choir, in every sense.

Clyburn was the guest speaker at a Black church here on a recent Sunday, telling the audience that a certain candidate for high office deserves to lose. He didn't mention Donald Trump by name, but it was clear whom he meant.

The Democratic congressman from South Carolina rattled off a list of ways Trump has insulted Black Americans over the years. Sitting in the pews, the largely middle-aged and older congregants applauded the message. The trouble for Clyburn, 83, is that the people he most needs to hear him weren't the ones listening.

The next day, Clyburn cast an early vote for President Joe Biden in South Carolina's Democratic primary. He held a news conference afterward and laid out the stakes.

"Do you want this country to be led by someone who time and time again demonstrates misogynistic tendencies and racist attitudes?" he said, standing outside the polling place on a blustery morning in Orangeburg. "Is that what you want?"

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.,
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., delivers a speech from the pulpit at the Seventh Episcopal District AME Church Lancaster District Lay Organization recommitment service at Allen Chapel AME Church in Sumter on Jan. 21.Gavin McIntyre for NBC News

Without Clyburn, there might never have been a Biden presidency. In 2020, his endorsement revived Biden's flailing campaign. Clyburn cemented Biden's status as the favorite of Black voters, helping him win the South Carolina primary and vaulting him to the party nomination.

Now, polling shows that young Black voters are peeling away from Biden in numbers that worry Democratic officials. Clyburn, for his part, sounds indignant.

Just compare Biden's history to Trump's, he says. Trump has demeaned Black Americans for decades, he adds, while Biden has compiled a record rivaling that of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society."

Of young Black voters who've grown disenchanted with Biden, Clyburn said: "I want them to stand in front of me and tell me they will support that [Trump’s record] over Joe Biden’s record."

NBC News polling in 2023 found that Black voters overall favored Biden over Trump by 73% to 17%. But when it came to voters under the age of 34, the margin shrank. Among that slice of the Black electorate, Biden’s support fell to 60%; Trump’s rose to 28%. In 2020, Biden won 87% of Black voters, including 89% of Black voters under 29 and 78% of those 30 to 44.

Any slippage from Biden's base could prove disastrous in another tight election. In 2020, Biden's victory rested on fewer than 43,000 votes in just three states: Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.,
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., meets with supporters at Allen Chapel AME Church in Sumter, S.C., on Jan. 21.Gavin McIntyre for NBC News

Clyburn is giving speeches and interviews warning Black voters of what it means if they forsake Biden and allow Trump to reclaim power.

He starts by reminding voters of Trump’s condemnation in 1989 of the Central Park Five — the minority teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a woman who had been jogging in Central Park.

Then came Trump’s role in the “birther” conspiracy that falsely questioned Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship. From there, Clyburn cites Trump’s false claim that a Black female poll worker in Georgia in 2020 was a “hustler” and a “professional vote scammer.”

“I just hope that in 2024 we are not going to find ourselves as a country falling into what Germany fell into in 1932,” he added, referring to the period when the Nazis came to power.

Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for comment about Clyburn's critique. He has described himself as the "least racist" person.

Goodies in return for votes

Clyburn’s argument rests on a simple premise: Young Black voters need to appreciate that the 2024 election is a choice that leaves them no practical option other than to vote for Biden. No president has produced a better record since Johnson enacted his civil rights and anti-poverty programs in the 1960s, he says.

Yet that’s not necessarily how Gen Z and the youngest millennials see things. Many are hungry for candidates apart from the two geriatrics marching toward a face-off in November. Neither Biden’s message nor the messengers are proving all that compelling, some said in interviews.

When it comes to politics, young voters aren’t taking cues from long-standing institutions and party leaders, a former Biden administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss frankly some of the president's electoral vulnerabilities. They’re instead looking to people “in the culture”: social media influencers, grassroots leaders and urban radio. Black voters “are not going to be a rubber stamp for the party,” this person added.

SCSU student Victoria Jordan
South Carolina State University student Victoria Jordan, left, on Jan. 19 recalls her experience meeting President Joe Biden while he was vice president.Crush Rush for NBC News

Interviews with students at two historically Black colleges in Orangeburg — South Carolina State and Claflin universities — reveal a glaring generation gap: a chasm separating what the students say is important to their lives and what older officials believe ought to be important.

Biden wants to talk about broadband; the students want to talk about civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip.

Democrats tout a road-widening project along Interstate 26 in Columbia underwritten by Biden’s infrastructure program; the students are focused on “food deserts” that contribute to diabetes and obesity. 

“In our neighborhoods, we have gas stations, fast-food restaurants and liquor stores. We don’t have access to the same food,” said Tierra Albert, a 19-year-old sophomore at Claflin. (“I don't want to vote for either one,” she said of the presidential contest.)

Asked if they believe elected officials are addressing such issues, a chorus of voices filled a campus conference room: “No.”

A memorial to Henry E. Smith, Samuel Hammond Jr and Delano B. Middleton
A memorial to Henry E. Smith, Samuel Hammond Jr. and Delano B. Middleton, who were killed in the Orangeburg Massacre, on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg on Jan. 19.Crush Rush for NBC News

Some of the students objected to what they saw as a transactional mentality underpinning Biden's case for re-election: goodies in return for votes.

Christian Nathaniel, an 18-year-old Claflin student, was among those whose home was wired for broadband last year.

"You’re doing these things as a last-ditch chance to beat Trump and get over it a little bit," said Nathaniel, who wants to be a doctor and eventually run for elective office. "'Now you’ve got internet, so hopefully you can give me a vote.'" He said he plans to vote for Biden, albeit reluctantly.

"This is my first time voting and this is very discouraging to the young Black voter," he said, adding that he is not "confident in either of the choices."

"We're picking the lesser of two evils," Nathaniel said.

'I appreciate you'

If only young voters knew more about what Biden has done to erase billions in student loan debt, for example, they'd feel differently, the president's allies contend.

In an interview before the church service, Clyburn summoned one of his security aides, a Black man in his 40s, who described his delight in getting a letter telling him that his and his wife's student loan debt totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars had been wiped off the books courtesy of Biden’s forgiveness program.

More of those letters will be going out before the election. At a fundraising event in Columbia on Saturday, Biden said that 25,000 people a month would be getting letters from him saying they'd be getting relief from student loans.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.,
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., exchanges laughs with supporters at Allen Chapel AME Church in Sumter, S.C., on Jan. 21.Gavin McIntyre for NBC News

Yet some of the students are unmoved. The war in Gaza and Biden's inability to rein in the Israeli military is a bigger concern. Biden could do more to address urgent needs at home if he redirected the money going toward Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, some said.

“As Black voters, we have the ability to empathize with the people of Gaza because we have a history of oppression,” said Olivia Ratliff, a 20-year-old sophomore at South Carolina State, Clyburn's alma mater. “It’s really hard for our president and our lawmakers to understand that because they’ve never been in a situation where they’ve been oppressed like the people of Gaza have.” 

Democrats are fanning out in hopes of swaying young hearts and minds. Vice President Kamala Harris turned up at a University of South Carolina women’s basketball team practice earlier this month and exchanged high-fives with the players.

Starting in the 2022 midterm election season, the Democratic National Committee has been making millions of calls and texts to Black voters and spent “seven figures” on paid media directed at Black communities, the Biden campaign said in a statement.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.,
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks with staff members before leaving Allen Chapel AME Church in Sumter, S.C., on Jan. 21.Gavin McIntyre for NBC News

“I’m concerned that with this wall out there, the MAGA wall, what are we going to do to penetrate that wall?” Clyburn said. “I just think that if you’ve got all this information, you’ve got to figure out how to smash through that wall. And I think we’ve got it figured out. I think we’re beginning to smash through it.”

Ginning up excitement isn’t so easy, though. Jaime Harrison, a Black South Carolinian who chairs the Democratic National Committee, turned up at a party breakfast in Spartanburg recently to rally support for Biden.

All went fine as the audience listened to his speech over a breakfast of grits and eggs. Then, when Harrison finished, 36-year-old Amia Harrison approached to say she was fed up with “voting blue no matter who.”

Harrison listened a bit and then turned away with a clipped, “I appreciate you.”