South Carolina Was Supposed to Give Black Issues a Spotlight. The Primary Failed Them.

Most candidates failed to connect with the state’s Black voters.

Joe Biden arrives for a campaign rally Thursday at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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The Forest Lake Country Club, a white facade on a picturesque lake just north of Columbia, South Carolina, has welcomed the state capital’s white elite for nearly 100 years. Among the members of this bastion of segregation is South Carolina’s governor, Republican Henry McMaster. He was reportedly a member when he served as a US attorney in the 1980s, launching his political career as a foot soldier in the war on drugs; when he served as chairman of the state Republican Party in the 1990s; when he became lieutenant governor in 2014; and when he ascended to the governor’s mansion in 2017. That year, the club finally admitted its first Black member. Like the Confederate flag that billowed over the capitol until 2015, it remains a symbol of the politics of South Carolina, a place where power stays in the hands of white politicians who insulate themselves from any challenge through gerrymandering and a photo ID law. Privilege has its memberships.

But every four or eight years, Democrats hold a presidential primary that gives African Americans in the state a voice. Anyone hoping to win South Carolina’s Democratic primary has to make an effort to connect with the state’s African American voters, seek the support of local officials—the only elected officials in the state who are Black—and elevate the needs of that community. 

This year, though, the primary seems to have largely failed South Carolina’s Black voters. Although the candidates and the party speak about race in sharper, less halting terms than ever before and have crafted several policies to match that rhetoric, the outreach itself wasn’t sustained, often felt awkward, and failed to connect with a community that needs more support from its party—and which will be crucial to defeating Donald Trump in November. On the day of the primary, Black voters overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden’s presidential bid, giving him a big win in the state and perhaps signaling to Super Tuesday voters that there’s still juice in his campaign. Exit polls showed that the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s most prominent Democrat and one of the most influential African Americans in Congress, played a significant role in consolidating Black support behind Biden. Almost half of all primary voters Saturday pointed to Clyburn’s endorsement as a major influence in their decision.

Biden, the former vice president, had premised his entire campaign on the support of South Carolina’s Black population. His frequent presence in the state for decades and his relationships with local leaders, as well as his having served alongside President Barack Obama, were supposed to elevate him above the field. And initial polls showed he was right. But political operatives in the state felt the Biden campaign took that support for granted. According to the Post-Courier event tracker, Biden spent considerably less time in the state than many other candidates. Rather than tending to his relationships in South Carolina, he left them to wither. Clyburn didn’t offer his endorsement until Wednesday. 

The primary calendar incentivizes candidates to spend more time in Iowa and New Hampshire. But winning the support of Black voters in South Carolina requires an attention to retail politicking, the better to build and sustain relationships. For a population too often taken for granted, it makes sense to trust the person you know and not the one who blows in with a flurry of plans they may or may not actually intend to implement. Biden had these relationships, but he coasted on them and saw his support here decline precipitously in the wake of his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. “He was running a general election campaign, and he himself was not spending sufficient time here,” says Clay Middleton, who ran the South Carolina campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, noting that Biden’s strong performances this week in the debate and a CNN town hall the following day had buoyed his campaign. “If he had been doing things along the way, his drop would not have been as significant.”

His absence created room for other candidates. Initially, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both African Americans, invested heavily in the state and visited often, making efforts to attract young Black voters at the state’s many historically Black colleges and universities. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke likewise spent a lot of time here. When all three dropped out before the voting started, they left a void. Efforts to reach Black voters the week before the primary met with poor results. In North Charleston, Pete Buttigieg arrived at a community discussion about investing in Black communities on Monday to find an overwhelmingly white audience waiting for him. On Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren’s Charleston rally with John Legend attracted an almost entirely white crowd. In Columbia on Friday, a rap duo and a lineup of all Black speakers introduced Bernie Sanders to a predominately white crowd. 

“I bet if the calendar were reversed and South Carolina were the first of the four, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris would still be in the race, because attention is not provided the way it should be down here,” says Middleton, who advised Booker’s campaign in South Carolina this cycle. “Before people run for president, they need to develop relationships down here so if and when they do run, they have a base to go to.” 

The most aggressive outreach to African Americans ultimately came from billionaire Tom Steyer, who drowned the state in an estimated $18 million worth of television ads while his paid canvassers crisscrossed the state. The candidate has run on issues of importance to Black people here, pointing to environmental catastrophes in minority communities and the lack of health care in rural areas, and calling for reparations for slavery, among many others. But these were gestures, and the campaign’s heavy-handed talking points papered over a policy platform that falls short of dealing with many of these problems. Despite a plan to invest in struggling historically Black colleges and universities, for example, Steyer doesn’t have a plan for free or debt-free college. His outreach attracted enough support among African Americans to help him to a third-place finish, but it wasn’t enough to salvage his struggling campaign. He dropped out on Saturday, with little to show for his efforts. His only memorable moment came the night before, at a rally in an HBCU gym in Columbia that more closely resembled a night out at the club, with flashing lights, a DJ, and rapper Juvenile, along with a lot of free food. At one point, the candidate danced awkwardly on stage to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.”

Whereas Steyer performed his dedication to the Black community, Pete Buttigieg took a more cerebral approach. On the trail, Buttigieg repeatedly acknowledged that he didn’t share, as he put it during Tuesday’s debate, the “lived experience of, for example, walking down the street, or in a mall, and feeling feeling eyes on us, regarding us as dangerous.” He told crowds that he approached the issue with humility and was ready to learn, which was perhaps the only possible route for a candidate dogged with questions about his handling of racial strife and discrimination as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. His campaign released a comprehensive plan to lift the fortunes and political power of African Americans, which he calls his Douglass Plan. Buttigieg put more time into the state than most of the remaining candidates, however, and it paid off in ways that are not readily apparent in the largely white makeup of his town hall audiences this week—although not enough to ultimately put a dent in Biden’s support.

In the Greenville area, for example, the campaign organized early by holding house parties, attending church services, and building relationships to introduce their unknown, unlikely candidate to an electorate that seemed unlikely in turn to welcome him—a continuation of a strategy deployed in other early states in which Buttigieg has turned to more rural communities to scoop up delegates. The campaign’s investment encouraged Jalen Elrod, a Black community organizer who serves as the first vice chair of the Greenville County Democrats, to endorse Buttigieg earlier this month. “I told Pete Buttigieg—it wasn’t really because of him as a candidate that I got on board,” Elrod said. “It’s really because of the work his team has done here.” Buttigieg has also won support from members of a younger generation of Black activists here, including state Rep. J.A. Moore and Walter Clyburn Reed, Rep. Jim Clyburn’s grandson. But Buttigieg still finished in a distant fourth place.

Outwardly, at least, Elizabeth Warren did everything right. She could boast the most impactful racial justice plans, according to the Center for Urban and Racial Equality, and she has stitched those plans into a holistic program that acknowledges the insidious legacy of slavery without portraying Black voters as only caring about a small basket of issues like criminal justice reform.* She has won the support of Black activists and had the help of a powerful surrogate, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, in her efforts to woo Black women. On paper, she looked great—but that was the problem. On paper. Support among Black voters in the state never materialized in part because Warren didn’t materialize. She did fewer events in South Carolina than Tim Ryan, who dropped out in October.

If anyone should have learned the lesson that relationships and time count for more than policies, it is Sanders. Four years ago, the frontrunner lost South Carolina by nearly 50 points to Hillary Clinton, someone with longstanding relationships in the state. This cycle, Sanders visited more than many of the other candidates, won over local officials, and had an impressive canvassing operation. His rhetoric, too, has changed in subtle ways, and he is more at ease now talking about the racial dimensions of inequality. Polls show that this outreach has gotten results, but as Middleton notes, he might have done better if he had tailored his approach to the needs of the older African American population by holding more intimate events rather than rallies. “Because he does not do any retail politics, older folks don’t feel like he comes across as a warm person,” he said. On primary night, Sanders fell far short of where his campaign hoped he would be.

Five days before the primary, a coalition of mostly Black activists and minimum-wage workers staged a rally for a $15 minimum wage and union membership before marching to a McDonald’s where the workers were striking. The event was meant to spotlight the poverty wages being paid to so many workers in the state, many of them Black. The Fight for $15 movement has attracted support from Democratic politicians throughout the primary season, but of all the candidates converging on Charleston, only Buttigieg bothered to show up in person. Warren and Sanders sent surrogates.

The next night was the state’s Democratic debate. It was supposed to focus on issues of particular importance to Black Americans. Instead it was dominated by chaos and bickering. This was, in miniature, the story of the South Carolina primary, which seemed at times to forget about the very people the candidates were trying to win over. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article cited the wrong think tank’s evaluation of Elizabeth Warren’s racial justice plans. It was the Center for Urban and Racial Equality.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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