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Election 2020 Heads To South Carolina


Polls are open in South Carolina, the first Democratic primary in the South, the first contest where African-American voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate. So a big test for a number of candidates. For more on what to watch as the day goes on, we turn to NPR's Juana Summers, who's been covering the campaign in South Carolina for several weeks. Juana, thanks for being with us.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Joe Biden says South Carolina is part of his path to win the nomination. How do things look for him right now?

SUMMERS: Yes, Scott. There's no question that this state is a make or break one for Joe Biden. I've been here all week talking to folks who know the state well and folks who are backing Biden. They say he's in a really strong place. There've been several polls out in recent days that show him with a double-digit lead. A lot of that is owed to the strong grip he has on the state's black voters. Here he is last night. He's doing a little math to urge students at Wofford College - that's in Spartanburg, and he's urging them to go to the polls.


JOE BIDEN: If you vote this time, with the same percentage - 18-25 year olds vote the same percentage that the rest of the population votes - there'll be 5.2 million more votes. And you can own it all.

SUMMERS: Joe Biden is hoping that this state will give him momentum as the race moves on to the 14 states that have their say on Super Tuesday. He hasn't done as much groundwork there because he's been forced to spend almost all his time here.

SIMON: Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton by 47 percentage points four years ago. What's this year look like for him?

SUMMERS: Well, things look so much different for him this year. Bernie Sanders is coming off of a close race in Iowa and wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, so he's got a lot of momentum in this race for the nomination. He's the front-runner right now. It's really clear that he's learned the lessons of 2016. I covered him then. And since then, he has kept his operation alive here in South Carolina. He and surrogates, those who back his campaign, have come back over and over again. Four years ago, people didn't know him. And they know him here now. He is not favored to win this race, but he has substantially more support from black voters this time around than four years ago. And that will be key not just in South Carolina but in later states as the primary electorate grows more diverse.

SIMON: And you've been on the road this week with Tom Steyer. Why is that businessman spending so much time there and so much money?

SUMMERS: He is betting everything on South Carolina. He has been here more than any other candidate. He has the largest staff on the ground, more than 90 people. And he has spent $17 million on local broadcast TV ads alone. That is a bigger investment than anyone else. And all of that is to make a big play for black voters. When you go out to a Tom Steyer event, he talks about reparations, the need to invest in historically black colleges and universities, economic and racial justice. Last night, he held a get-out-the-vote concert at Allen University. It's one of the state's HBCUs. It was quite the party.


TOM STEYER: Win, lose or draw, I fell in love with the people of South Carolina.


STEYER: I'm never leaving. Honestly, I am never leaving because this is a completely righteous fight. And we're going to win this fight.

SUMMERS: Something a lot of people don't know is that Tom Steyer has actually been coming to South Carolina for years, even before he was a presidential candidate. He came here for his climate change activism and with the Need to Impeach movement that he launched. And a lot of voters tell me they knew him even before he started running from that work.

SIMON: South Carolina votes today, but Super Tuesday is just in three days - 14 other states. How do the candidates juggle this in their schedule? Because they have to travel, truly, between California and New York, then South Carolina.

SUMMERS: Yeah, there's no question that there is a calendar crunch here. And that means candidates are having to make some strategic choices. Not all of them will be here today as the votes roll in. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg - they'll all spend primary night elsewhere. And we should note Mike Bloomberg won't be that far away. He'll be in North Carolina. He is not competing for votes in South Carolina. But starting on Super Tuesday, he will be on primary ballots, as well.

SIMON: NPR's Juana Summers in South Carolina, thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank y'all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

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