When Joe Biden was considering running for president last spring, progressive activists circulated a video clip of him delivering the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral in 2003. In spring 2019, Mr. Biden delivered another senatorial eulogy at Fritz Hollings’s funeral, and rivals pounced again (in both cases, for praising the onetime segregationist senators).
On the surface, both speeches seemed out of step with activist Democrats and a potential liability. But they were actually an asset for Mr. Biden in South Carolina, because they reminded voters of his long history in the state and personal relationships that allowed him to declare the primary his early firewall.
Cable news and Twitter have nationalized and accelerated the campaign news cycle, but South Carolina politics still move at a different pace. The state is a place where loyalty can outweigh ideology, hiring an elected official’s cousin or nephew makes a difference, and candidate visits are critically important. It’s difficult to parachute in at the last minute and introduce yourself through advertising alone, the way candidates will be forced to do in Super Tuesday states and beyond. These quirks set South Carolina apart from other early-primary states and have surprised and challenged presidential campaigns for the past 40 years.
For Democrats, the Palmetto State’s diverse electorate offers a sharp contrast to Iowa and New Hampshire, and an opportunity for presidential hopefuls to show they can assemble the multiracial coalition necessary to win the Democratic nomination. Black voters are expected to make up around 60 percent of the primary electorate, and the past three South Carolina primary winners — John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — all won a plurality or outright majority of black voters. Goodbye state fair butter cow and Red Arrow Diner, hello fish-fry fund-raisers and black churches.
Recent polling suggests Mr. Biden is well-positioned to win on Saturday, which would give his campaign a much-needed boost going into Super Tuesday. A surprise win for Mr. Sanders would generate even more momentum for his campaign and likely end Mr. Biden’s long and distinguished career in politics.
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden landed the most coveted endorsement of the South Carolina primary: Representative James Clyburn, the House majority whip and a fixture in state politics since the 1970s. Mr. Biden’s path to victory is to leverage Mr. Clyburn’s late endorsement into big margins with black voters and moderate whites in the congressman’s sprawling House district, which stretches from Columbia to Charleston and touches many Democratic counties in the state. Mr. Biden’s ability to consolidate support from second-tier candidates could also be critical in a close election.
Mr. Biden also has connections to state legislators and local officials that go back decades, and his campaign operation will lean on them to activate their organizations on Primary Day. Another powerful motivator is his status as the loyal vice president to the country’s first black president — it is raised repeatedly in focus groups and everyday conversations.
Tom Steyer hardly registers in most national polls, but his record-setting spending in South Carolina, which includes around $22 million in television ads as well as an ambitious $125 billion program for historically black colleges and universities, have made him a factor. In this last week before the primary, he has the largest TV buy in all four in-state markets and all three adjacent markets. He’s unlikely to win the primary, but he’s a potential spoiler, siphoning votes from Mr. Biden.
Mr. Sanders’s path is more complicated but still viable. South Carolina exit polls showed him winning only 14 percent of black voters in 2016, but his coalition is more diverse this cycle. Some of his best 2016 counties — Greenville, Spartanburg, Oconee, Pickens — were all in the Upstate, where there is a higher percentage of white voters, transplants and college students. Mr. Sanders will count on them again, along with new voters and voters under 30. If he’s able to win counties outside of this base, or significantly expand the electorate, it will help quiet establishment critics and allay fears about his general-election viability.
In the vernacular of South Carolina’s celebrated barbecue culture, expect Mr. Sanders to overperform in Upstate tomato sauce country, while Mr. Biden will try to run up big margins in the Midlands mustard region and Lowcountry vinegar territory.
In general, South Carolina Democrats are more moderate and pragmatic than national Democrats. South Carolinians are more likely to attend religious services than the national population, and 10 percent of the state’s adult population has served in the military, one of the highest rates in the country. Polling shows 45 percent to 50 percent of South Carolina Democrats identify as either moderate or conservative, a figure much higher than Democrats in other early states and the national party. They’re used to working across the aisle to deliver results and expect presidential candidates to do the same.
South Carolina’s primary forces campaigns out of their comfort zone. Candidates are expected to do the electric slide at the annual Clyburn Fish Fry or clap on beat with a church choir.
These interactions can be revealing and sometimes entertaining. As the executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party during the 2004 primary, I had the unusual assignment of arranging the Sunday morning church visits of the candidate Al Sharpton and the Howard Dean surrogate Jesse Jackson, who at the time were not on the best of terms. I watched other candidates struggle to open oyster shells and saw an animated pastor ask Joe Lieberman three times whether Jesus was in his heart before the senator sheepishly waved him off.
One of the great joys and regular frustrations of South Carolina politics is its unpredictability and refusal to bend to prevailing political norms. The state’s contrarian voters have been confounding journalists and political consultants for most of my lifetime. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did it again this weekend.
Nu Wexler is a communications consultant and a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
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