US President Joe Biden looked set for an easy win Saturday in the Democratic primary in South Carolina, but there were signs of low turnout in this key test of support among Black voters for his reelection bid.
The southern US state launched Biden’s road to the White House in 2020, and he is seeking some of the same magic four years later for a boost ahead of a likely rematch with Republican Donald Trump.
Voters were slow to arrive at a number of polling booths visited by AFP in the historic city of Charleston, with many people apparently viewing Biden’s victory in South Carolina as a foregone conclusion.
“Who are the other two people on the ballot? I didn’t even look,” joked retiree Jane Douglas, 69, as she left a voting station at an elementary school in Charleston.
The 81-year-old incumbent has only two long-shot challengers in the poll: Minnesota congressman and gelato magnate Dean Phillips, and best-selling self-help author Marianne Williamson.
Several voters said Biden’s record as president was mostly satisfactory, while admitting there was a lack of enthusiasm for his second term bid — but that they did not want to see Trump win.
“It’s the lesser of two evils,” said Noelle Paris, 63. “Biden, let’s just say I’m not against him, but there were other people who should have been put in the position of being the nominee.”
Biden has made a string of campaign visits to South Carolina but is staying away on Saturday, the day after US retaliatory strikes hit Iran-linked targets in Syria and Iraq following the deaths of three US troops in Jordan.
“I am feeling good about where we are. I really am,” Biden said during a visit to his campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The guy we’re running against, he’s not for anything. He’s against everything.”
Biden has made it clear he views South Carolina as a proving ground for his ability to woo the Black voters who played such a large role in getting him to the Oval Office in 2020.
A number of recent polls have shown support for Biden slipping among Black voters, especially youth, amid frustration that he has not addressed their priorities despite them backing him four years ago.
But other polls recently have showed him edging ahead of Trump or neck-and-neck, even if his personal approval ratings remain at low levels not seen by a sitting president for decades.
Biden also pointed to his victory in an unofficial primary in New Hampshire, despite the fact that he was not on the ballot and voters had to write him in.
Biden pushed for South Carolina to be at the front of the Democratic primary this year, above New Hampshire, whose population is almost entirely white.
Turnout will be closely watched in South Carolina, particularly among Black voters — and if they stay away then Democrats will need to worry.
One polling station visited by AFP had received less than 100 people by noon 1700 GMT), five hours after the polls opened. Another in a large gymnasium was empty some three hours after opening.
Despite South Carolina being likely to remain in Republican hands in November, as it has done since 1980, Biden regards it as a proving ground for his support among Black voters.
Democrats have made major campaigning efforts, with Biden visiting twice this year, including to a Charleston church where a racist gunman killed nine parishioners in 2015.
On Friday, Harris urged supporters to come out and vote in a fired-up speech at a historically Black university.
“South Carolina, you are the first primary in the nation and President Biden and I are counting on you,” she the first Black and female vice president in US history told the rally in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
The Republican primary on February 24 promises to be more dramatic than the Democratic, with Trump trying to deal a knock-out blow to former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley on her home turf.