Why legendary South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn wants young voters to 'be selfish' this election

Rep. Jim Clyburn welcomes President Biden to Columbia, S.C.
Rep. Jim Clyburn welcomes President Biden to Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 27. (Artie Walker Jr./AP)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the most influential Democrats in Congress, says young and Black voters could easily determine the 2024 presidential election — and that they need to take that responsibility seriously.

“Be selfish, young people, and think about your future,” Clyburn, who recently announced he would be stepping down from his House leadership position, told Yahoo News.

Clyburn, 83, is the rare Washington figure still held in high esteem by Democrats and Republicans alike. He began his career as a leader in the civil rights movement, became a trailblazing South Carolina official while the state was just emerging from the legacy of Jim Crow, and won his first election to the House in 1990.

The South Carolina primary

But it’s in South Carolina where Clyburn’s influence is most felt. Just before the Democratic South Carolina primary in 2020, Clyburn announced he was backing Biden — an endorsement that single-handedly revived Biden’s struggling campaign and put him back on the path to the White House.

On Saturday, the state’s Republicans will choose between former Gov. Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump in the South Carolina primary. Clyburn, however, is urging young and Black voters to rally to President Biden in November — despite Trump’s efforts to court them.

“Trump asked [Black voters] before, ‘What do you have to lose?’ Clyburn said, a reference to Trump’s much-criticized appeal to Black voters in the 2016 election.

“Well, women, you just lost the right to make reproductive decisions. That's what you have to lose. Black men, you have already lost a lot. Unemployment went up. Inflation skyrocketed. So you found out what you had to lose. And now you're having a hard time deciding whether to vote for Biden, who got us beyond all that, or Trump, who got us into all that?”

By November, over 34 million Black Americans will be eligible to vote in the 2024 presidential election and a good chunk of them will be members of Gen Z.

Black voters and the 2024 election

A woman votes during the Democratic primary in Ladson, S.C.
A voter in Ladson, S.C. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Clyburn notes that young Black voters have been pivotal to Democratic victories across the country “for a long, long time.” This is especially true in must-win swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia — the latter of which voted for Biden over Trump by fewer than 15,000 votes in 2020.

According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 65% of Black voters say they would vote for Biden in a November rematch with Trump, while Trump gets just 17% support from Black voters.

There are, however, other signs that Democrats are starting to lose their historic advantages with Black, Hispanic and young voters. A recent Gallup poll revealed that support for the party among Black Americans has fallen by almost 20% in the past three years.

To be clear, the vast majority of Black voters still prefer the Democratic Party to the GOP, with 66% considering themselves Democrats or Democratic-leaners vs. 19% who call themselves Republicans or Republican-leaners. But before the 2020 election, a whopping 77% of Black voters favored Democrats, while just 11% supported Republicans — a 19-point switch in the GOP’s direction.

Young voters are starting to drift to the right

According to Gallup, young voters of all races have likewise soured on Biden and the Democrats. If the current numbers stay consistent, Gallup says, 2024 “would be the first presidential election year since 2000 that Democrats haven’t had a double-digit advantage among 18- to 29-year-olds, and the first presidential election year since 2004 that they have been at a deficit among 30- to 49-year-olds.”

Democrats have hoped that their efforts to cancel student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans — an effort largely thwarted by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court — should make young voters understand that it’s the Democrats who have their back.

But Kristin McGuire, the executive director of Young Invincibles — a nonpartisan youth advocacy organization — told Yahoo News that young adults care about the economy as a whole and how it will affect them, just like any other generation before them.

“We talk about canceling student debt as a singular issue. But it's a larger factor in the cost of attaining the ‘American Dream’ these days, and how young people have access to that dream. Education, housing, gas, and food costs more now than it ever has,” said McGuire.

For Clyburn, however, the struggles faced by young and Black Americans mean they should be leaning more toward Biden, not less. He pointed to the Biden administration’s record to remedy some of these concerns, like forgiving almost $138 billion in student loan debt for nearly 4 million borrowers.

“If you look at the way Joe Biden did it ... it's a much better deal,” Clyburn emphasized. And yet, Clyburn said, “Every young person I've talked to has hung on to that one issue as proof that Joe Biden did not keep his promise.”

Clyburn said that while there is still more work to be done, it’s clear that Democrats are helping young and Black voters in ways that Republicans will not.

“Now which one of these presidential candidates do you want to be in charge of the Department of Education when you become eligible to have that debt relief? The guy who created it, or the guy who tried for four years when he was president to get rid of it,” said Clyburn.

“Joe Biden, in his proposals, has made people free to go to work and purchase a home. The basic thing about freedom, to me, is to have the right to choose. That’s ultimate freedom.”