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Black Voters Remain A Hurdle For Elizabeth Warren


In recent years, no Democratic presidential candidate has clinched the nomination without substantial African American support. That is a major challenge for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Despite the fact that she's rising in the polls and she's raising millions of dollars, she is struggling to win over black voters. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Anton Gunn ran Barack Obama's political operation in South Carolina back in 2007. These days, he works as a health consultant, but he's still the kind of guy presidential candidates call for advice. He says he's met several Democrats this cycle, including Elizabeth Warren.

ANTON GUNN: Actually, she was the very first presidential candidate to call me on the phone. It was within - whenever she announced, it was within the week she announced.

KHALID: Gunn says Warren has some solid plans, but a lot of voters in South Carolina just don't know her. And that's a problem because they've known one of her opponents, Joe Biden, for years.

GUNN: I say this affectionately. If you look at Barack Obama as Michael Jordan, Joe Biden was his Scottie Pippen. He was the No. 2 beside the greatest player in the game for - in the minds of many people. You know, there's a fondness for him.

KHALID: Some strategists say Biden's relationship with the African American community in the state is far stronger than what Hillary Clinton ever had. And so you're just not seeing cracks in his campaign in South Carolina. But for Warren, there's a separate problem.

Chris Richardson is a former U.S. diplomat now active in South Carolina Democratic politics.

CHRIS RICHARDSON: My great-grandfather used to say that black folks know white folks better than white folks know white folks.

KHALID: What exactly does that mean?

RICHARDSON: For them, they're very, very pragmatic in their choices, and so they reject the Howard Deans. They reject the Bernie Sanders in 2016 out of a sense that they know America, and they know what white Americans want. And they think maybe perhaps white Americans, from a very pragmatic sense, want someone like a Joe Biden.

KHALID: In other words, a sense that Biden is best equipped to beat Donald Trump. Strategists say Warren has room to grow because a lot of black voters don't know her yet.

Adrianne Shropshire leads the group BlackPAC, which works to mobilize African American voters.

ADRIANNE SHROPSHIRE: What we have learned is that as black voters become more familiar with Elizabeth Warren, the support level for her actually goes up.

KHALID: Shropshire says Warren has a lot of policy plans that have a racial justice lens, and that gives her credibility with black voters. A clear majority of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina is black. But there's an opinion among some strategists that maybe Warren can make inroads with young black voters, consolidate the white vote and that'll be good enough.

SHROPSHIRE: I also don't think that it's necessary for her to win every black voter. She just needs to cut into Biden's lead more deeply.

KHALID: But even to do that, there is consensus Warren should be doing more - more personal, intense campaign swings in black communities.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: There's a connectivity issue.

KHALID: Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic strategist in South Carolina.

SEAWRIGHT: I think she's going to have to have some key validators in the community that will give her a trust factor that she does not enjoy at this point.

KHALID: Tomorrow, Warren is holding a town hall with South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress. They're partners on a student loan debt plan. Even though he hasn't endorsed her, the hope for Warren is that by talking about plans like this at a historically black college with a key black leader could translate into black support.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAKAISU'S "SETTLING IN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.