CHARLESTON, S.C. — The crowd at a music venue here was energized, on its feet, breaking out into an occasional chant of “dream big, fight hard” while waiting for a get-out-the-vote rally with Senator Elizabeth Warren and John Legend.
But when one black City Council member from nearby North Charleston entered the auditorium, he immediately noticed a problem: The audience was almost entirely white.
Just days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary, a contest in which black voters will likely make up around 60 percent of the electorate, Ms. Warren drew an audience in Charleston that more closely resembled those in Iowa and New Hampshire, more John Mellencamp than John Legend.
Mike Brown, the North Charleston city councilor who is undecided in the primary, called it a troubling omen — a campaign that has tried to pitch itself as the uniting force within the Democratic Party that could not attract the party’s most loyal constituency.
“Look at this audience, and it’s no representation from African-Americans. One percent? 2 percent?” Mr. Brown said. “Her message is strong, and those who hear her like her, but she just hasn’t reached people on the ground.”
Ms. Warren has vocal support from some of the most prominent racial justice activists, online influencers and scholars — people with enormous digital followings, and visibility in the media. She won that support through a conscious political courtship, listening to black activists and releasing several policy plans to reflect how she valued their input.
It has paid off with endorsements and presidential forums, and fueled a perception of Ms. Warren as the candidate of diverse coalitions. She scored highest among the 2020 candidates on the Center for Urban and Racial Equity’s “Racial Justice Scorecard,” lit up a crowd of women of color at She the People’s presidential forum last year, and announced the support of a collection of activists and organizers called Black Womxn For in November.
“We are really focused on who is going to advance the best policies that will transform the lives of black people across the country,” said Alicia Garza, the activist and founder of the Black to the Future Action Fund, a political group that recently endorsed Ms. Warren, a Massachusetts senator.
However, there remains a significant disconnect between that perception and the reality of securing black and Latino votes. And that disconnect is becoming harder to hide, as Ms. Warren lost decisively among Latino voters in Nevada and her prospects among black voters in South Carolina look equally grim. Recent polling averages project she will finish fourth or fifth in the state, behind more widely known or well-funded candidates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the businessman Tom Steyer.
Don Calloway, a Democratic strategist specializing in field operations with black voters, said Ms. Warren’s problems winning them over threatened the viability of her campaign moving forward but should also serve as a cautionary tale: The progressive activists who have showered her candidacy with validation have a different electoral lens than the black electorate at large.
That schism is a distinction some have labeled “grass tops vs. the grass roots” — or the belief that the leaders of liberal and progressive organizations have a different political lens than their more working-class members.
Ms. Warren “did a great job of galvanizing internet-savvy, well-known personalities, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like that support has translated into populations on the ground,” Mr. Calloway said.
There are signs Ms. Warren’s campaign long knew it was in trouble in the South and among black voters.
Late last year, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions, Ms. Warren’s team called around to experienced South Carolina operatives, hoping to add experience and an “adult in the room” to a black outreach operation they admitted was inadequate.
However, the time coincided with a rough stretch in Ms. Warren’s campaign nationally; including a downturn in polling, the departure of Ms. Warren’s national organizing director amid complaints of “inappropriate behavior,” the entrance of new Democratic candidates who snapped up some staff, and a fund-raising slowdown that halted its ability to recruit new blood.
The Warren campaign’s struggle winning over black and Latino voters is a significant disappointment for a candidacy that once believed this would be its avenue to usurp Mr. Sanders, who struggled to attract similar voters during his previous run but has shown some growth by winning Nevada and making improvements among younger black voters in South Carolina. It has disrupted Ms. Warren’s ability to make the case that she, not Mr. Sanders, is the progressive capable of building diverse coalitions of Democrats.
Throughout the campaign, Ms. Warren has won plaudits from elite black and Latino Democrats, both those in the more traditional party establishment and outsiders. She was praised as a model for how white candidates could use policy proposals and rhetoric to highlight their values, and a testament to the importance of building a diverse staff who could advocate the finer points of minority outreach — like engaging with the black and Latino press.
Aides and surrogates for Ms. Warren’s campaign continue to point to these moments, arguing that they will — eventually — have an electoral payoff come Super Tuesday and beyond. They play down the Nevada results because the early vote took place before her lauded debate performance, and they look past South Carolina, arguing candidates who have higher name recognition have disrupted the playing field.
“She has had a year to build her profile and name recognition and Sanders has had four years to do that,” Ms. Garza said. “And in South Carolina, they’d vote for Biden not because of his policies, it’s because he says Obama in every sentence.”
Nelini Stamp, national organizing director with the Working Families Party, another progressive group that has endorsed Ms. Warren, said there is still time for Ms. Warren’s popularity among widely known activists to pay off, pointing to voters who remain undecided.
“And just look at the support Senator Warren has gotten across the board,” Ms. Stamp said. “It’s movement people, leaders of organization, and individuals. In Black Womxn For, we have 400 women and gender nonconforming folks.”
However, outside Ms. Warren’s group of surrogates, and on the ground in South Carolina, a sense of pessimism is growing. Local elected officials, party strategists and rival campaigns now say that Ms. Warren’s candidacy is a case study in the limits of using the language of progressive activists to speak to a black community that is more ideologically diverse.
This week, at a minister’s breakfast in North Charleston that Ms. Warren attended, the older black voters who dominate the South Carolina electorate were not talking about policy — but electability. In interviews, residents universally praised Ms. Warren’s speech to the group that morning, but questioned her ability to beat President Trump, particularly after she failed to finish in the top two in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The question was not whether they liked her, or whether she was prepared, but if they could trust her.
“At this point it’s all about electability,” said Telley Lynnette Gadson, a pastor from Greenville who attended the breakfast. “I want someone who looks like they can win.”
Even Ms. Stamp, who is supporting Ms. Warren, acknowledged the campaign’s disappointing early performance may have influenced black voters who are guiding their choices by the singular question: “Who can beat Donald Trump?”
“It would not be responsible to say that the early states don’t have an impact,” Ms. Stamp said. “But I do think that last week’s debate showed she isn’t giving up the fight and people believe she’s a fighter.”
Among younger black voters at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, where Ms. Warren held another rally this week with Mr. Legend, she had a different problem — many of the young voters who attended, and even those who liked her, still planned to vote for Mr. Sanders. The Vermont senator has his own collection of prominent black supporters, and has the added benefit of higher name recognition from his previous presidential run.
The students said Mr. Sanders was the talk of their Twitter feeds, Instagram timelines and classroom political discussions — an organic omnipresence that did not need activists or big name surrogates to bolster it.
“Bernie just sparked this movement for young people. He makes the impossible seem possible and I want to stand with someone who stood with me,” said Latayah Williams, 20, a student who attended Ms. Warren’s rally at South Carolina State but who called Mr. Sanders her first and “original” choice.
Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said Ms. Warren’s plight highlighted the importance of growing trust in black communities, before those voters will believe in campaign plans.
“It’s taken Bernie four years to do this well with young black people,” Mr. Robinson said. “Our community has deep loyalties and they stick with people. And it takes time for people to pick a new horse if that’s what they were going to do.”
According to an analysis by The Post and Courier, the largest daily newspaper in Charleston, Ms. Warren has also held relatively few events in South Carolina. Mr. Steyer leads with 54 events in the state, while former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Mr. Sanders are tied at 41 and Mr. Biden comes in at 30.
Ms. Warren’s tally was just 20 events entering Friday, less than former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, and former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, all of whom have left the race.
Mr. Calloway said Ms. Warren’s trajectory should send a signal to other candidates: “You can be right on the policy but if you’re not there and don’t have a good team there, it’s all for naught.”