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As a Saturday primary vote approaches, South Carolina voter James Morrison says “Joe Biden is a good man, but my vote is not guaranteed.” The Jonesville resident is leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
With African Americans including Mr. Morrison representing a growing share of the Democratic Party overall, South Carolina’s “First in the South” primary will offer this cycle’s first real electoral test of that clout.
What began as one of the most diverse Democratic fields in history has been winnowed to an all-white group of candidates. They are courting a primary electorate in this state that is two-thirds African American, and far from unified around any one candidate this year.
“There are divisions of gender within the black community; there are divisions by age and generation,” says Todd Shaw, who studies social movements within the black community at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Those splits aren’t new, he adds, but with a candidate like Barack Obama they weren’t apparent, because there was consensus around his candidacy. “Those [divisions] certainly emerge,” Professor Shaw says, “when there’s greater uncertainty about which candidate could effectively challenge Trump and is electable.”
Sitting on a cluster of chairs next to an abandoned softball field, Deacon James Morrison and his after-church buddies are busy sorting out the next president of the United States.
The group of mostly older African American men, who get together every Sunday in a kind of makeshift social club, are united in their view that President Donald Trump has drawn the nation into a kind of playground sandbox. And they see him as affront to the legacy of President Barack Obama.
But that doesn’t mean their support for Mr. Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, is a given.
“Joe Biden is a good man, but my vote is not guaranteed,” says Mr. Morrison, who is leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “I’m in nobody’s pocket.”
With African Americans representing a growing share of the Democratic Party overall, South Carolina’s “First in the South” primary will offer this cycle’s first real electoral test of that clout. What began as one of the most diverse Democratic fields in history has been winnowed to an all-white group of candidates courting a primary electorate here that is about two-thirds African American. And the choices made on Saturday by voters like Mr. Morrison could foreshadow – as well as influence – what happens just three days later on Super Tuesday, when a slew of heavily diverse Southern states, as well as giants like California and Texas, will vote.
“What happens here is going to reverberate through Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and beyond,” says Harold Mitchell, a former member of the South Carolina legislature from Spartanburg, South Carolina. “It’s going to start a wave.”
For Democrats concerned about the rise of the far-left Senator Sanders, South Carolina could be their last chance to boost a moderate alternative. Vice President Biden has long cast the Palmetto State as a “firewall” for his campaign, thanks to the goodwill he enjoys among the state’s African American voters. On Wednesday, he got the official endorsement of influential South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I know Joe. We know Joe,” Congressman Clyburn said. “But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
But while most polls still show Mr. Biden in front, the race has dramatically narrowed. Other candidates – such as billionaire Tom Steyer, who has been pouring resources into the state – have been growing their support in the wake of Mr. Biden’s shaky performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Most notably, Senator Sanders has risen sharply, particularly after his decisive victory last Saturday in Nevada. Trounced by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina in 2016, he now has a real shot at winning here, which could make him virtually unstoppable going into Super Tuesday, where 1,400 delegates are in play.
On the surface, a septuagenarian democratic socialist from Vermont may seem to have little in common with black voters in the South. Yet Mr. Sanders’ advocacy for the working class appears to be resonating with many in this industrial and agricultural state, where stark pockets of deep poverty abound.
Mr. Morrison, for one, dismisses criticisms of Senator Sanders as a leftist radical. “Those labels just don’t stick with me,” he says. “They called Martin Luther King Jr. a communist, too.”
“Sanders has a strong grassroots organization, legions of small donors, and he has that tailwind of being the major challenger to Clinton in the last election,” says Todd Shaw, who studies social movements within the black community at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. “Biden, for one, certainly underestimated the strength of Bernie Sanders in South Carolina.”
Unlike 2008 and 2016
Saturday’s primary comes as African American voters have a growing voice in the Democratic Party. They made up 19% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2008; this year, they’re likely to reach 25% or more. In South Carolina, they have often broken decisively for a candidate – helping Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, respectively, secure their paths to the Democratic nomination in 2008 and 2016.
But this year, experts say the African American vote could splinter, particularly as there appears to be little consensus around who would be the strongest candidate to go up against President Trump.
“There are divisions of gender within the black community; there are divisions by age and generation,” says Professor Shaw. Those splits aren’t new, he adds, but with a candidate like Mr. Obama they weren’t apparent, because there was consensus around his candidacy. “But those [divisions] certainly emerge when there’s greater uncertainty about which candidate could effectively challenge Trump and is electable,” he says.
Younger black voters, in particular, are evincing a broader frustration with the Democratic establishment, as reflected in a recent East Carolina University poll, which showed more than half of older African Americans supporting Mr. Biden, while those younger than 35 more likely to support Mr. Sanders or Mr. Steyer. Those trends are mirrored in the growing numbers of younger liberal voters in the South registering as “unaffiliated” instead of as Democrats, says J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
Many of those voters did not cast a ballot in the last presidential election, where black participation dropped by 7%.
“These are voters who are not misinformed, not ill-educated, but registered voters who [in the past] have made an intelligent decision from their standpoint that, ‘My vote is not important, but wasted, and I’m not going to get involved,’” says Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the state’s Democratic Black Caucus.
Some of those disaffected voters, he says, are not only getting involved now, but becoming sounding boards for older voters. “I had a young lady call me in tears, sharing with me that her grandmother called her and ... said to her, ‘Baby, who should I vote for?’” says Mr. Cordero.
In Tuesday’s contentious Democratic debate, Mr. Biden insisted he was taking nothing for granted. “I’ve worked like the devil to earn the votes of the African American community, not just here but around the country,” he said. He promised to put a black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not surprisingly, he has also heavily emphasized his ties to former President Obama, says Mr. Coleman. Still, he notes that Michael Bloomberg – who is not on the ballot in South Carolina – has also been running ads that prominently feature Mr. Obama praising the former New York mayor. “Bloomberg, in particular, is trying to steal some of that nostalgic connection that Biden has to Obama – which, if successful, could be very hurtful [to Biden] in a state like South Carolina,” he says.
Race as a campaign issue
Black voters, of course, are united by a common history, one forged by prejudice and suffering. In South Carolina, that past is not that far in the past. In 2015, 150 years after the fall of the Confederacy, South Carolina finally removed the Confederate battle flag from the state grounds, after a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston that summer.
Allegations of racism have been a persistent thread in the Democratic contest. Mr. Bloomberg has been attacked over the stop-and-frisk police tactic he once promoted. Mr. Biden has had to defend his support as a senator for an omnibus crime bill that disproportionately affected black people.
In Tuesday’s debate, Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Steyer for his hedge fund’s past investment in a private prison corporation that had been accused of mistreating prisoners. “They hogtied young men in prison here in this state,” he said.
Mr. Steyer responded indignantly, saying he’d sold the stock after investigating, and that he’d worked to eliminate private prisons in California.
On Sunday, reporters asked the California billionaire about allegations he’s been buying endorsements in the state (something Mr. Sanders has also been accused of doing). He told the Monitor that assuming African American lawmakers’ support is for sale “is racist.”
Wearing an Indian bead belt and a loose collared shirt, Mr. Steyer addressed a large crowd of mostly black parishioners at Family Worship Center, in Yemassee, South Carolina, the heart of the Lowcountry.
“We need to tell the truth about 400 years of injustice,” he told the crowd. “And there’s no other way to look at economic and environmental justice other than through race.”
Mr. Steyer’s push for a race commission, reparations for slavery, and rural infrastructure funding has made him perhaps the most focused of any candidate on African American issues. And his speech resonated among some in the crowd.
Democratic voter Phyllis Grant says she hasn’t decided yet on her choice, but Mr. Steyer’s pitch made a solid impression. When it comes to “education, foreign policy, the economy, and race in America – this is our chance to say where we go next,” says Ms. Grant.