(Bloomberg) -- Elizabeth Warren on Saturday returned to South Carolina, where she faces an uphill battle to show she can win over a diverse Democratic electorate even as her support is rising in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally.
The Massachusetts senator stumped at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, aiming to chip away at Joe Biden’s strength in the southern state, which holds its primary election on Feb. 29.
Black voters overwhelmingly back Biden, who enjoys name recognition with a bloc that’s key to winning the Democratic nomination, helped by his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.
But Biden’s biggest weakness is among young black voters, and that may be Warren’s best asset as she looks to broaden her appeal.
Her plans to cancel student debt and make colleges tuition-free could find particular appeal to younger African-American voters, who borrow money to finance higher education more often than any other racial group and whose debt loads at graduation are often higher.
“Joe Biden’s message to younger voters remains to be seen,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative in South Carolina. “That’s an untapped market that still seems to be searching for a candidate, and if Warren can excite that particular age group, that enhances her chances of carving out an appreciable percentage of the black vote in South Carolina.”
Warren’s South Carolina town hall was her first following polls this week that showed rising support for her White House bid among black voters nationally.
She gained 9 percentage points between August and September in that bloc, according to a Sept. 25 Quinnipiac poll. She moved into second place among Democrats, with 19% support, but is still far below Biden at 40%.
Biden lagged behind among black voters aged 18 to 34, with just 18% support, according to a Post and Courier/Change Research poll from August. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had 30% while Warren had 26%. Sanders, like Warren, proposes student debt cancellation and free public colleges.
Student debt disproportionately affects students of color, who borrow more often and in higher amounts. Only 14% of African-American students graduate from college free from debt, compared with 30% of white students, 33% of Hispanics and 41% of Asian students, according to a study by the American Council on Education.
Meanwhile, about one-third of African-American bachelor’s degree recipients accumulated $40,000 or more in debt along the way, compared with 18% overall. Warren crafted her policy to directly address that gap.
“Elizabeth’s goal when designing the plan was to cancel the most debt possible while also closing the racial wealth gap,” said Bharat Ramamurti, Warren’s economic policy adviser. Her proposal would cap the debt forgiven at $50,000 and focus on those who make less than $100,000 in annual income.
Warren certainly has her challenges. Although Saturday’s event was held at a historically black college, the people that showed up were overwhelmingly white.
When asked about it, the senator highlighted her commitment to tackle racial inequality in several of her policies.
“What I’m doing is showing up and trying to talk to people about why I’m in this fight, what’s broken and how to fix it,” Warren said. “And it’s not in just one policy, it’s everywhere.”
Biden isn’t taking his foot off the gas in the Palmetto State. His campaign insists it’s taking active steps to increase outreach among young black voters there, including bringing in a youth engagement director to target that demographic and hiring younger staff that can connect with their peers more easily.
Some 95% of Biden’s South Carolina staff is under age 35, said Kendall Corley, Biden’s South Carolina state director.
“With any age group, any demographic, you just don’t get to know people overnight. We’ve had to build the momentum there,” said Corley. “Not only are we listening, but we are putting folks to work and making young people a part of this campaign to address their issues. We take the approach of leaving no stone unturned.”
--With assistance from Joshua Green.
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