ROCK HILL, S.C. — Senator Elizabeth Warren seems to have a detailed plan for everything. But her strategy so far in South Carolina, which holds a crucial early presidential primary, is a work in progress.
She’s taken the polling lead or is running neck-and-neck with former vice president Joe Biden in the states with the first three nominating contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. But Warren trails Biden by more than 20 percentage points in South Carolina, which goes fourth next February and will award more Democratic delegates than any of the early states.
Her supporters say Warren is just ramping up her campaign here and can rise in the polls as she has elsewhere in recent weeks. But skeptics warn she may need a plan to win the nomination that does not include South Carolina, where she is struggling largely because of difficulty gaining traction among African-Americans who make up the majority of Democratic voters here.
Both groups agree on one thing: If Warren wants to win, she needs to start showing up more.
“I know that we live in a high-tech society, but in South Carolina we are a high-touch state,” said Wendy Brawley, a state representative who supports Warren. “It really does resonate with people when they have an opportunity to hear her.”
Voters at Warren rallies consistently say they like her more after they hear her personal story and how it has informed her array of policy plans. At every stop, Warren tells of growing up “on the ragged edge of the middle class” in Oklahoma, struggling to put herself through college and care for her children. That is why she says she wants universal child care, tuition-free public college, government-backed health care, and a host of other policies she plans to fund with a wealth tax.
Warren’s African-American supporters say once black voters really consider their needs and the issues that matter to them, she is a better choice, even though Biden is more familiar given his long political career and eight years as vice president under Barack Obama.
Warren seemed to be heeding the concerns of backers in South Carolina last weekend by traveling here to hold a rally in Rock Hill, but that was her only public event. Afterward, she was asked about her difficulty drawing black support in the state.
‘The way I see this is that African-American women have really been the backbone of the Democratic Party for generations now,” she told reporters. “They get out there and they fight for people. And what I’m doing is showing up and trying to talk to people about why I’m in this fight.”
The most recent poll in South Carolina, released by CNN on Sunday, showed Biden with a 21 percentage point lead over Warren, who was in second place. Her 16 percent support was a slight improvement over a state poll late last month.
Warren campaign officials are reluctant to discuss their specific strategy in South Carolina. She has visited the state eight times, compared to Iowa 13 times, New Hampshire 17 times and Nevada five times, they said.
The campaign said it is still ramping up its South Carolina operations. There are six field offices so far. They plan to open another soon in Rock Hill and also have organizers in Florence, a town in the rural and heavily African-American Pee Dee region.
Volunteers began door knocking and phone banking this summer and plan to expand to other parts of the state soon, according to the campaign. Organizers have been holding debate watch parties, events at local breweries called “Pints and Persist,” and recently a day of service with Habitat for Humanity. The campaign also sends representatives to local events such as the recent 101st anniversary of the Aiken County NAACP.
When people talk about Warren’s efforts in South Carolina, they often liken her to Obama in 2008. That year he was a relatively unknown candidate with electability questions trailing front-runner Hillary Clinton in the polls here. But after Obama won a stunning victory in Iowa, South Carolina voters switched directions and delivered him a win, too, helping propel him to the Democratic nomination.
Many older black voters here are concerned about backing someone they aren’t convinced could beat President Trump and at this point consider Biden a safer bet than Warren. She could get an electability boost from winning Iowa, but some analysts said it might not resonate in South Carolina the way Obama’s victory did.
“She’s not Barack Obama and she’s not black and the urgency of the moment is totally different than it was in 2008,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “I’m not sure that her message at this point has tickled the ears of everyone in this party.”
Seawright, who worked twice for Clinton, said he is not sure how well Warren’s message of populism will resonate here.
“Unless there’s some sort of crack in the political foundation that Joe Biden has with African-American voters, I think that it would be tough to win South Carolina,” he said.
If crowds are any foreshadowing, Warren's most recent appearance hints at her uncertain performance. Her rally Saturday at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, was attended mostly by white people. But the college president said Warren drew more people than Biden or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who have also held events at the school.
It was clear at the Rock Hill rally that the Warren campaign is aware it has work to do with black voters. Many of the people who introduced her on stage were black, and volunteers passed out signs that said “African Americans with Warren.”
During her speech, Warren called for more funding for historically black colleges and universities and earned the biggest cheers of the afternoon when she talked about her plans to fight voter suppression and political gerrymandering, which disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
The crowd also showed the generational divide that Warren is dealing with in South Carolina.
“With the older black voters, they tend to go for Biden because of name recognition. But with the younger black voters, it’s complicated,” said Casey McClure, 26, of Rock Hill. “Some of us want a progressive, and hopefully everybody turns out to vote.”