COLUMBIA, S.C.—Democrats in South Carolina may have over eight months to decide whom to vote for in 2020, but for now, there’s one thing that unites them: they think the media is relentlessly bullying Joe Biden.
“Propaganda’s going to always be around,” said Columbia resident Rev. Thurmond Guess, Sr. “If you give the devil a ride, he will drive.”
Guess Sr. was describing a sentiment that’s become increasingly common among the electorate here: at the very least, voters say, the political press is over-hyping Biden’s remarks this week, where he recalled working with prominent segregationists to get things done in the Senate. In interviews with nearly a dozen voters over two days, undecided and ardent supporters described a dizzying cycle where cable news buzz and print media headlines are sensationalizing the former vice president’s comments.
“They’re looking at any little thing to get the candidates to turn on each other,” said Elizabeth White, a Biden supporter from Aiken. “Any kind of headline to grab attention, they’re going to blow it up.”
“There’s too many news channels and they’ve got to have something to talk about,” added Geraldine Mogan, an undecided voter. “They make too big of it.”
Those were the views largely shared among voters who spoke with The Daily Beast during a series of political engagements here. On Friday night, Biden was one of 21 candidates who spoke at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) “World Famous” fish fry, where he steered clear of his remarks from earlier in the week and instead sought to form a more personal connection to voters.
Nearly 500 miles away from the Beltway chatter, Biden worked off of the temperature of voters in the “first-in-the-South” primary, who were generally keen to turn their attention to the media’s focus on his remarks, rather than taking a direct issue with them.
Biden’s appearance here was met with great anticipation. Days before touching down, he caught a slew of negative headlines while addressing the need for a renewed sense of “civility” in American politics. Remembering days past where he worked well alongside two segregationist senators, including Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.), he said, “At least there was some civility.”
“We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything,” he added. “Today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy.”
But as the cable news and social media attention dominated much of the 2020 headlines, Biden’s comments were far from top of mind for many voters, African-American leaders, and political strategists.
“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Rep. John Lewis said on Friday. “During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan. We never gave up on our fellow human beings.”
If reporters “spent time on the ground with everyday people, they’d see they’re not interested in the narrative that the media tries to write about these issues,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist here said.
Voters tended to agree with Lewis and Seawright, but went further to stress the powerful role the press plays in amplifying his remarks.
James Leslle, a delegate from Dillon County who is supporting Biden, said he “absolutely” believes the media is hyping up Biden’s comments, largely because he is the current frontrunner in state and national polls.
“I played a little football,” Leslle said, referencing reporters piling on Biden’s remarks. “I didn’t go for the little guy, I got the big guy.”
Others expressed a similar desire from the political press to attack the current frontrunner in a Democratic primary that includes nearly two dozen contenders. And Biden’s considerable lead among his rivals in South Carolina certainly doesn’t help his press coverage, voters agreed. In latest Post and Courier poll, he earns 37 percent of support, while the most recent CBS News/YouGov survey places him at 45 percent.
While the press critiques came largely from undecided voters and supporters of the vice president, others who are fond of rival candidates agreed that the non-stop coverage of soundbite remarks is not necessarily fair.
“The media is always going to be separatists to an extent,” Allen Love, a Columbia resident who is supporting Bernie Sanders, said. “Even though I’m not a Biden supporter per se, I always have to look at the full breadth of what he’s saying and the context.”