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, and lately Greenville, are world renowned, South Carolina is better known as one of the country’s reddest of red states and being nearly last on every national statistical list.
With the weaker blue side of the state’s political spectrum getting attention, we offer this pragmatic, somewhat cynical guide to South Carolina, settled 350 years ago as a business proposition that generated enormous wealth and inequities that still exist today.
Check your prejudices at the airport. 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.
Black 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 you might assume. 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 built-in loyalty to favor his record. (Advantage: Biden. Disadvantage: Klobuchar.)
Black voters aren’t necessarily pro-gay. This is a generalization, but there’s a lot of truth in it: Black voters in S.C. are deeply religious and have historically been uncomfortable with gay leaders. They’re not opposed, but black voters are 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 here. (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 has spent millions of dollars on TV and mail for months and has risen from nowhere into second place, according to recent polls. If he places high on Feb. 29, he could take away votes from Biden. (Advantage: Steyer, Bloomberg. Disadvantage: Biden.)
Don’t get distracted by the GOP. Republicans could have had a primary if they wished. Former Gov. Mark Sanford challenged President Trump for a while, but got nowhere because the enemies of voter choice and yes-men 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 2016. Don’t fall for their nonsense.
Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper.