Great Falls, South Carolina — When Dr. Jill Biden stopped in this small lakeside town on Saturday, a crowd of about 50 voters braved the rain in the middle of the day to hear her make the pitch for why her husband should be the next president of the United States.
"There are people like you ... who show up for the things that matter, who refuse to be discouraged," Biden said in the Great Falls War Memorial building, a two-story brick structure that hosts community events. "And you refuse to be cynical, and you keep believing with all your hearts that our voices matter, that we can change things, that our hope is not lost."
It was the first time a presidential surrogate had ever come to town. One voter cried while taking a picture with her, and others applauded as she recounted the accomplishments achieved by her husband and former President Barack Obama.
"This is huge for us," said Chester County Councilman Michael Vaughn. "We have a small population if you compare us to surrounding counties ... [Campaigns] just can't draw as big a crowd here in Chester County as they can going into a more urban county."
Great Falls is halfway between Columbia and Charlotte in the southeast corner of Chester County, a burgeoning corridor in the Palmetto State with manufacturing plants and corporate headquarters that shape the economy of the region. It's home to more than 20,000 registered voters who can vote in either party's primary, and the Democratic candidate who has won here has also won the statewide primary in the last three competitive presidential cycles.
Angela Douglas, the mayor pro tempore of the city of Chester, said energized local supporters are key to mobilizing others in adjacent rural areas.
"We saw people from Newberry, from Fairfield, a few people from Lancaster," Douglas said, referring to voters who came from neighboring counties to see the former second lady. "When you start adding up the numbers of [votes in] those places that feel neglected ... you're going to find your numbers."
Joanna Angle, a 72-year-old tree farmer in Chester County, said it's important for presidential candidates and their top surrogates to visit towns like hers and keep a finger on the pulse of rural America.
"There's no substitute for person to person, face to face," said Angle. "You hear a lot of talk about the heartland — well, I think that we're the real America, [and] the experiences that we have here translate to other parts of the country."
In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama excited the community in a way that hasn't been seen since, winning Chester County with 59% of the vote in the Democratic primary, and the state overall by a whopping 29 points.
Nathaniel Douglas, a retired manager and a Biden supporter, was a poll worker at the time and remembers the line of voters being wrapped around the precinct. But by 2016, he said people were feeling politically disengaged. Voter turnout in Chester County in the 2016 Democratic primary was just above half of what it had been just eight years earlier.
"The people weren't even interested [and] people took things for granted," said Douglas. "It's a lot of people that surrounded me that took things for granted, who said, '[Trump] ain't going to win, he ain't nothing but a joke.'"
Joe Biden, who some Chester County voters see as the best person to defeat the president in the general election, held a significant lead among South Carolina Democrats in ain July. His campaign says it's focused on rural areas, and local officials who have endorsed the former vice president say visits like Jill Biden's event in Great Falls helps them engage with other voters.
Nathaniel Douglas said that voter enthusiasm in the area has once again shifted ahead of the 2020 primaries.
"Things are more energized now," he said. "People know what they need to do ... because if we don't get out and do what we're supposed to now, the next four years will be worse."
Vaughn, the county councilman, said he's also supporting Biden, but insisted that voters in his county shouldn't be forgotten by any of the 2020 hopefuls. He said all of the candidates could glean a few lessons by spending time in his county.
"This is going to be a place that they don't want to overlook [because] it's got unique attributes," said Vaughn. "It's got the growth and it's also got the rural problems and if you can figure out how to solve those problems in Chester County, you're figuring out how to solve those problems in so many places across this nation."
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