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What Young Voters Want In South Carolina

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we said, we are here in Columbia, S.C., where their polls are still open, and voters are still casting their ballots to choose the Democratic presidential nominee. Throughout this primary season, pollsters and strategists are going to be paying close attention to which groups of voters are showing up and which groups are staying home.

On this program, we're going to be paying particularly close attention all year to younger voters and potential voters. That's typically defined as between the ages of 18 and 29. We want to understand who and what is getting them motivated or turning them off.

One reason we're following this - the 2018 midterm elections turned out to be an historic year for the youth vote. That, according to Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which has been tracking youth voting, 28% of eligible young people voted in the 2018 midterms, which was the highest turnout among that group in decades. But that still leaves a lot of room for growth, and many candidates have been here in South Carolina making their pitch to young voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEGEND: (Playing piano).

MARTIN: Yup, that's John Legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEGEND: (Playing piano, singing) Oh, oh.

MARTIN: He was at South Carolina State University, an HBCU in Orangeburg, getting the crowd hyped for Senator Elizabeth Warren.

AMARIS DAVIS: Yeah, I'm skipping Spanish. I'm sorry, Dr. Stein (ph) (laughter).

MARTIN: That was Amaris Davis (ph). She was a little reluctant to admit it, but eventually, she came clean. She was really there to see John Legend.

MARTIN: Roland Brandon (ph), though, was there to be convinced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Because here's the thing. We fight back. We fight back. And we get this government to represent the people. We push back the interests of money in this country, and we can make big structural change.

MARTIN: He wanted to hear what Senator Warren had to say.

ROLAND BRANDON: I'm on the fence.

MARTIN: You're really on the fence. Who are you kind of looking at?

BRANDON: I like Elizabeth. I like Elizabeth, but I also like Joe.

MARTIN: What is it that attracts your attention to her?

BRANDON: Her energy. Like, her energy. You can tell, like, she really wants it. It ain't just - she's not doing it just because she don't like the other candidates. She's doing it because she - you can feel her energy and her presence when she talks.

MARTIN: Later, we drove north to Columbia to the biggest public university in the state, the University of South Carolina. We met with some of the more engaged Democrats on campus, including Ashley Harrington. She is the state federation president of the College Democrats of South Carolina. That's the official youth outreach arm of the Democratic National Committee.

You're the president of State College Dems. Would it be fair to say that you prefer not to declare a candidate or - publicly disclose?

ASHLEY HARRINGTON: I would personally prefer, and I cannot.

MARTIN: OK. No, that's fair.

HARRINGTON: (Laughter) Yeah.

MARTIN: That's fair.

Like all of the students we spoke with at USC, this will be Harrington's first time voting in a presidential primary and a presidential election.

HARRINGTON: We had our most formative years looking at the 2016 presidential election and seeing what that did to that country because we were seniors and juniors and sophomores in high school. The shift from Obama to Trump - that big shift - it really sparked a lot of people.

MARTIN: Presumably, you've been listening to the conversations that your friends and your peers had been having. Why don't you just tell me what some of those conversations have been?

HARRINGTON: So whenever you're going to be around a lot of young people, they're going to be more progressive. It's like that everywhere - status quo - of course, depending on people's personal beliefs, family lives, where they're coming from. There could be a few moderates. We have in the College Democrats of - at USC a few moderates.

MARTIN: Two of them, to be exact.

HARRINGTON: That's about it (laughter)

MARTIN: She was referring to Richard Dorman and Jaleel Johnson (ph). And we talked with both of them.

Are you excited about voting in your first presidential election?

JALEEL JOHNSON: I am - well, I actually did vote absentee.

MARTIN: Oh, you voted absentee.

JOHNSON: It was kind of - it was sad, though...

MARTIN: That's kind of...

JOHNSON: Because...

MARTIN: Yeah...

JOHNSON: You know...

MARTIN: There's no hoopla.

JOHNSON: I know. You get to - there's a different feeling when you actually go to the polls and press the button.

MARTIN: That's Jaleel Johnson. He's a freshman.

JOHNSON: My ancestors fought for me to have this right, so I was excited to use my right to vote.

MARTIN: And he used that right to vote early for former Vice President Joe Biden.

JOHNSON: So Biden, when he first ran or when he announced that he was running, we already knew who he was because, especially as a black person, Obama was so accomplished. And when I saw Biden, I saw Obama through him. And because racism is one of my most important issues, I think that Biden has a better insight on how to solve the institutional system of racism because he did witness firsthand the racial insensitive remarks directed at the first black president.

MARTIN: If he doesn't make it to the nomination, would you still vote for the Democrat?

JOHNSON: I will still vote for a democrat. I did tell people again, as a moderate, I'm just going to need some more convincing on why I should vote for - if Bernie Sanders becomes a nominee. My main concern with having him or Warren is I think it's going to affect the down-ballot.

There's a young gentleman by the name of Jaime Harrison who is a black man who's running against Lindsey Graham. He's a Democrat running in a red state. He's black. And I feel like if Bernie's a nominee, it's going to affect people like him because what the Republicans are doing and what some Democrats are doing are branding us as a socialist party.

MARTIN: Richard Dorman shares those concerns. He's a junior from Aiken, S.C.

Are you excited about voting in a presidential election for the first time?

RICHARD DORMAN JR: One hundred percent.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DORMAN: I am pumped. In fact, so this Friday is South Carolina's playing Clemson in baseball - go Gamecocks, by the way.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DORMAN: Got to let that out. And so I plan to leave early in the morning right after that baseball game, head back home to my precinct bright and early and go out and vote and then spend the rest of the day with my folks.

MARTIN: And the Dorman vote is going to Vice President Joe Biden as well.

Did you consider any other candidates?

DORMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I considered Mayor Pete. The biggest reason why I'm not sure about him is because he lacks experience in federal government. Also considered Elizabeth Warren - my biggest concern with her is her trade policy. It's...

MARTIN: What about Sanders? A lot of young - I mean, not to be patronizing, but so many of the younger - his juice is really coming from the younger voters.

DORMAN: Yeah. Well, I will say that back in 2016, that's when I really started dabbling in politics to start with. In fact, Bernie Sanders - he had a rally at USC Aiken in my hometown. That was the first political rally I've ever been to. And I was full-on in support of Bernie Sanders at the time. But my views - as I've continued to look more into politics, look more into policy and stuff, I've become a lot more moderate, I guess you could say. And my views just simply don't align much with Bernie.

MARTIN: That makes him a bit of an outlier among his peers. Again, according to research from Tufts University, Bernie Sanders has won the youth vote decisively in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Timothy Simmons is strongly considering him as well. He's a sophomore at USC. And earlier this week, he attended a CNN town hall where he got the opportunity to ask a question of the former vice president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Welcome back to the live CNN Democratic presidential town hall. We have former Vice President Joe Biden. Let's get another question from the audience. Timothy Simmons, student at the University of South Carolina, leaning towards Senators Warren and Sanders. What's your question?

JOE BIDEN: I'm not going to answer his question.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: I'm only teasing - only teasing. That was a bad joke.

TIMOTHY SIMMONS: Yeah. Good evening. You have criticized Michael Bloomberg for his stop-and-frisk policies in New York. But you have not really commented on your 1994 crime bill. Are you aware of the impact that it had on the black community? Would you pass such legislation if it were to be introduced today?

BIDEN: Let me tell you, I've commented on it a hundred times.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: I've been thoroughly...

SIMMONS: He basically told me that he had black representatives in the community during that time help him and, like, support that cause, and that's why he did it. But at the end of the day, I asked him specifically about the black community. I understand that, like, the murder rates went down. Violent crime went down. But the black incarceration rate went up. So I don't think that there's a link between murder rates and black people in jail. But maybe I'm wrong.

MARTIN: Do you feel like there's a difference of opinion between you and, say, your older relatives?

SIMMONS: Well, actually, my parents are all voting for Bernie Sanders. My, like, grandparents - they are voting for Joe Biden because he's familiar.

MARTIN: Do you think Bernie Sanders can win - I mean, in November? Do you think he can beat Donald Trump?

SIMMONS: I do. The reason is because Barack Obama energized black people to vote in 2008. I don't think Joe Biden will have that same energy from young black people. Barack Obama had that energy from everybody. For people like me, like younger voters, we wouldn't - I don't think that people like me would turn out for Joe Biden.

MARTIN: Just a few blocks from campus at Finlay Park in downtown Columbia, rapper Killer Mike gets a crowd of young people fired up while they wait for Bernie Sanders to take the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KILLER MIKE: I'm going to ask, and I don't need to tell you what to say. The time to progress is when?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) Now.

KILLER MIKE: The time to progress is when?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) Now.

KILLER MIKE: I love what the Democratic Party has done. But I'm going to love more what we are about to do.

(APPLAUSE)

KILLER MIKE: We are going to progress this election. We're going to progress this party. We're going to progress this country. And we're going to progress that old guy right into the White House.

(APPLAUSE)

BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you, Columbia.

MARTIN: That's the energy Timothy Simmons is looking for when he casts a primary ballot for the very first time.

SIMMONS: I have always wanted to vote - I mean, like, even in high school. For me and I think for a lot of other kids, seeing Donald Trump being elected really changed our minds about voting.

MARTIN: And that's what the campaigns are counting on as they continue on from South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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