For the presidential candidates, staffers, reporters and hangers-on starting to descend like locusts into South Carolina for its national debate and the Feb. 29 presidential primary, remember what native son James L. Pettigru wrote just after the state seceded in December 1860:
“South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
In a lot of ways, that one sentence still rings true.
The Palmetto State, home to 5 million Americans, has blossomed as the Sunbelt attracted outsiders, but it remains a largely rural and suburban state with no city larger than 150,000 people. While Charleston, Hilton Head Island and lately Greenville, are world-renowned to visitors, South Carolina is better known as one of the country’s reddest of red states that’s home to smiling faces, beautiful places and being nearly last on every national statistical list that’s published.
With the weaker blue side of the state’s political spectrum getting so much attention these days, we offer this pragmatic but somewhat cynical guide to South Carolina, settled some 350 years ago as a business proposition that generated enormous wealth and inequities that still exist today.
Check your prejudices at the airport. Southerners aren’t stupid. We have teeth. We wear shoes. Half of us aren’t pregnant all of the time. Overall, the state is more purple than red or blue. While there are no statewide Democratic officeholders, blame that more on gerrymandering than voters. Don’t fall into cheap cliches when trying to figure out what’s going on politically. Doing so will get you into trouble.
Blacks voters are traditional. Some new, shiny thing doesn’t resonate with black voters, who comprise more than half of Democratic primary voters. A big reason former Vice President Joe Biden has been doing well here is that African Americans in South Carolina are more conservative than assumed. (Remember what assuming gets you in news and politics.) African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, want what most Democrats want — someone who can beat President Trump in November. But they also want someone who is known and has a proven commitment to the mainstream. It’s important that Biden served as President Obama’s vice president. There’s a lot of innate loyalty built-in to favor his record. (Advantage, Biden; Disadvantage Klobuchar.)
Blacks aren’t pro-gay. This is a generalization, but there’s a lot of truth in it: Blacks in South Carolina are deeply religious and often uncomfortable with gay leaders. They’re not opposed, but they’re not rushing in large numbers to the polls to vote for a gay candidate. That’s just the way it is. (Disadvantage, Buttigieg.)
Class warfare isn’t as big of a deal here. There’s a reason South Carolina has the lowest unionization rate in the country. It’s because there’s an ingrained, top-down economic system in place that evolved from the state’s highly successful plantation culture. The rich get richer in South Carolina and the poor don’t crawl out of poverty — but they also don’t elect leaders to force the system to change. Calls to arms to combat class divisions don’t work as well in South Carolina. (Disadvantage, Sanders, Warren.)
Maybe money works. The big difference in this year’s S.C. primary from those in the past is how billionaire Tom Steyer of California has spent millions of dollars on TV and direct mail for months and has risen from nowhere into second place, according to recent polls. If his campaign places high on Feb. 29, he could take away votes from Biden — and foreshadow how even more money spent nationally could upturn the Democratic political apple cart in the weeks ahead. (Advantage, Steyer, Bloomberg; Disadvantage, Biden.)
Don’t get distracted by the GOP. Republicans could have had a presidential primary had they wished. A former GOP governor, Mark Sanford, challenged President Trump for a while, but got nowhere because the enemies of voter choice and yes-men to the hilt thought it would be better for there to be no primary. Now some of them openly talk about meddling in the Democratic primary — just like Russians did in the 2016 elections. Don’t fall for their nonsense.