It’s the early state that delivered a decisive victory to Barack Obama in 2008. In 2016, it saved Hillary Clinton.
In the wake of South Carolina’s pivotal role in the past two competitive Democratic presidential contests, top Democrats are beginning to rethink their traditional approach to primary season, and to focus their energy on the first Southern state to vote.
It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the essential role African-American voters play within the Democratic Party as much as it is a nod to recent primary election results. With the racially diverse Obama coalition increasingly viewed as the key to the party’s future, the two early states that have historically overshadowed South Carolina — Iowa and New Hampshire — are suddenly looking outmoded to many Democrats.
“The primary process in selecting a candidate will now not be determined by the Iowas and New Hampshires,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008. “It will be a long, drawn-out affair, and the first big test will be South Carolina, to see who is strongest among the party’s base, the African-American base of the Democratic Party.”
The floodgates are poised to open within weeks. In early jockeying ahead of the 2020 primary, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former Attorney General Eric Holder are all expected to travel to South Carolina before November’s midterm elections. Kamala Harris is likely to visit. Eric Garcetti is scheduled to return to the state in late September, and Terry McAuliffe is hosting a fundraiser in Washington for James Smith, South Carolina’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
Biden has lent his endorsement not only to Smith, but also to Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman running for a state Senate seat.
In part, the candidates’ early focus on South Carolina reflects the path Obama and Clinton took to the Democratic nomination. The state helped to cement their credentials with black voters, a crucial demographic both in South Carolina and in the states whose elections will quickly follow.
By mid-March 2016, the presidential primary campaign had already run through 10 states with black primary turnout exceeding 25 percent, according to CNN exit polls. In 2020, North Carolina — a key swing state with black turnout of 32 percent two years ago — is moving its primary to early March, as well.
Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically among the whitest states in the nation.
“You have to think about where the party is now,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former South Carolina state party chair. “You’ve got some people who are still using a 1980s model for running for president, which is ‘I just need to camp out in Iowa and New Hampshire.’ … The Democratic Party now looks very different than it did in the ’80s or ’90s, or even the 2000s. The question is, how are you going to appeal to people of color, which are now the backbone of this party?”
Harrison added, “The best way to test that is in South Carolina. … I think that’s going to be a really, really important component of the presidential race this time around.”
The Rev. Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democratic operative who served as CEO of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Convention committees, said, “Given the demographic changes in the country and the growing activism of African-American voters, I think over time … there is a growing idea among the party regulars that Iowa, New Hampshire are not demographically representative of who the party is.”
She said, “At what point does the weight of their significance shift? I think the perception is shifting now.”
In addition to South Carolina’s relatively small size and inexpensive cost of advertising, the state’s Republican-heavy politics have afforded potential 2020 candidates an opening to help underfunded Democrats within the state without appearing overtly solicitous of attention for their own ambitions.
That red-state status is one reason candidates are focusing now, in the midterm election year, on South Carolina — and not on California, a massive, delegate-heavy state that is moving earlier in the primary season in 2020, but where top-of-the-ticket Democrats do not need assistance.
It is also far less expensive to campaign in South Carolina, which is more reliant on a brand of retail politics that can benefit from months of networking on the ground.
“If you want to do old school, back-to-the-basics campaign stuff, it’s hard,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who worked for Clinton’s campaign in 2016. “Relationships and knowing the territory really matters in South Carolina.”
Earlier this year, Biden, who has cultivated extensive ties in South Carolina, endorsed Smith in a video message at the state Democratic Party’s convention. Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, is scheduled to keynote a fundraiser for the Charleston County Democratic Party on Sept. 23, after previously raising money for the state party.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu have appeared in the state, as has Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who has already announced his presidential campaign, traveled to South Carolina in April, before going on to visit all 99 counties in Iowa.
Garcetti adviser Bill Carrick, a South Carolina native who managed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign, said he expects Iowa to “eliminate some people who won’t go to South Carolina or, if they go there, they won’t be taken seriously.”
But in an unwieldy candidate field in which everyone “other than Sen. [Bernie] Sanders and Vice President Biden, the rest of them are going to be scrambling to be in the top tier,” Carrick said South Carolina presents an opportunity for a candidate to distinguish himself or herself in a diverse but relatively small state.
“It’s not a mega-state, so people can go forward and communicate there,” he said. “I would not underestimate its influence in this process.”
While Iowa and New Hampshire will likely remain “make or break” states for long-shot candidates, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, higher-profile candidates will find that “South Carolina [comes] pretty fast after New Hampshire, so you could certainly regenerate your chances by doing well in South Carolina.”
“Hillary barely won in Iowa, right? She got clobbered in New Hampshire,” said Rendell, a former DNC chairman. “But she won South Carolina, and that really boosted her.”
He said, “I don’t think anybody can take the Bernie Sanders route to the nomination, which is, Bernie Sanders got wiped out in the South.”
At its recent meeting in Chicago, the Democratic National Committee adopted rules confirming Iowa, once again, as the first caucus state in 2020. In a prepared statement, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, Troy Price, called hosting the caucuses an “awesome responsibility.”
The crush of media attention on Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, is historically so significant that competing there will be instrumental to candidates’ ability to gain — or keep — national attention early in the primary process. And the significance of states that follow, including South Carolina, could sharply decline if any candidate wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, gelling support early in the nominating process.
“[But] assuming you have a split between Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina becomes critical,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime political strategist who served on multiple Democratic presidential campaigns.
Before California and its massive delegate haul, he said, “South Carolina would be the next signal, and primary voters are always looking for signals.”
In South Carolina, Seawright puts that sentiment in spiritual terms.
“Anyone who’s thinking about, or flirting with, the idea of running for president in the Democratic primary in 2020 understands two things,” he said. “The road to heaven and the road to the White House runs through South Carolina, and very likely, whoever wins South Carolina will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020.”