February 17, 2020

I grew up in South Carolina. During my youth in the Eighties and Nineties, the state rarely appeared in national headlines — and when it did, it was generally for reasons involving race. Starting the Civil War remains the state’s claim to fame and South Carolina’s love affair with the Confederate Flag was a perennial topic of conversation. It was also the one that made the national news.

It was only in 2000, after years of emotive debate, that state lawmakers finally removed the rebel flag from atop the State House. Instead, they raised it as part of a Confederate monument directly in front of the building. It took another 15 years, and a mass shooting by a Confederate-celebrating white supremacist inside a historically black church, for the flag to be taken down completely.

Once every four years, though, South Carolina has the chance to bathe in a more positive limelight. The state’s Republican and Democratic primaries are bellwethers for the directions of their respective parties.

For Republicans, this has manifested in SC voters choosing the eventual Republican nominee in all but one election cycle since 1980. For Democrats, South Carolina has been about showing their candidates can drum up support in the Republican-leaning South.

This means mobilising black voters, who comprise 30% of the state’s population and the majority of SC’s Democrats. Similar demographics face the party across the South, where black voters make up large portions of Democratic voters. The African-American vote has been essential in not ceding the entire south to the Republican Party and critical in other races across the country as well.

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Fortunately for Democrats, black voters have been consistently loyal to the party: well over 80% of African-Americans identify with them; Republican support among black voters remains in the single digits. Unfortunately, however, this loyalty has largely led to the two parties putting minimal effort into courting the black vote. Republicans don’t believe they can win them over (and often because their strategies incorporate dog-whistles and racial appeals to white voters) and Democrats don’t bother courting them because they know black voters have no alternative.

As Elizabeth Warren pointed out in the most recent Democratic debate, “election after election after election, Democrats go to people in the black community and say ‘Boy, we really care about these issues. Racism is terrible, we all want to do something,’” all without offering any “concrete plans” that lead to actual changes.

Warren was bold enough to say what black voters have long known: the Democratic Party takes them for granted. But I predict that a time is coming when the competition for these votes could actually materialise into policy rather than empty rhetoric.

The rapidly shifting primary race is causing renewed focus on the African-American vote. With Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg as the top two finishers in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the previous frontrunner Joe Biden needs a big victory in South Carolina to remain a viable candidate. Biden has essentially abandoned the New Hampshire race to focus on SC, a state he’s long felt confident in winning due to his support from the black political establishment there.

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Biden does recognise the importance of black voters to Democrats’ prospects; but their support is not a given. He would be wise to bear in mind that this loyalty is coupled with political savvy and pragmatism concerning how to allocate that support. In 2008, black voters did not immediately flock to Barack Obama; it was only when his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire demonstrated that he could be a viable candidate, that their support switched from Hillary Clinton, the more seasoned Washington insider, to the young black Senator from Illinois.

Now Biden, the establishment candidate of this election cycle, finds himself in a similar situation. After his poor showings in the nation’s first two races, Biden’s national support from black voters has dropped by half in the latest poll. He looks increasingly vulnerable. His opponents have sensed blood in the water, knowing that an upset win in South Carolina could knock Biden out altogether.

Bernie Sanders, for example, is increasingly appealing to young black voters there, who are less tied to the establishment than their parents (it was more progressive, young black voters who were early supporters of Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016). Billionaire Tom Steyer, otherwise a second-tier candidate, has been pouring millions of dollars into the state and growing his own connections to the black political establishment.

Even Pete Buttigieg has been attempting to woo black communities in South Carolina, as the beginning of a strategy of turning around his own campaign’s poor showing with the demographic.

But it’s not just the race for the presidential nomination that’s made South Carolina, and the black vote more generally, so important to the Democratic Party in 2020. Nationwide, they are in trouble. Republicans have established a solid majority in the US Senate, achieved a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, and dominate the majority of state legislatures; the GOP even has a chance (though not necessarily a great one) of retaking the House of Representatives. Furthermore, despite impeachment and a flailing foreign policy, Donald Trump has remained a formidable foe for November.

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Meanwhile, a number of competitive Senate and House races, as well as the longer-term trends of migration and changing demographics are shifting the balance between conservative “Red” states and liberal “Blue” states; several formerly solidly Republican strongholds states are becoming “Purple.”

These factors, plus the unpredictability of Donald Trump, mean that virtually everything is up for grabs this year. And the results of the last few years have demonstrated that the Democrats’ chances hinge on the ability to not only maintain black support but to actively galvanise these voters.

After Hillary Clinton narrowly lost to Donald Trump in 2016, there was a bitter and sometimes nasty debate about whether black voters lost Clinton the election through abstention (black turnout in 2016 was measurably lower than in 2012, when Barack Obama was up for re-election). While many other factors came into play (including Clinton losing her own demographic, as more white women voted for Trump than for Clinton), there was a noted “enthusiasm gap” for her among black voters.

This gap largely emerged from Clinton’s inability to answer for policies she vocally supported as First Lady and insufficiently addressed as presidential candidate – welfare reform that increased poverty, a crime bill that sparked an era of mass incarceration, and the labeling of (minority) youth offenders as “super-predators”.

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, whose self-funded campaign has seen him rise dramatically in the polls, especially among black voters, may succumb to similar baggage due to his support for the NYPD’s racially-discriminatory “stop and frisk” policies that he oversaw when Mayor of New York City and only denounced once he launched his latest presidential bid.

To Hillary Clinton’s past mistakes were added the further tactical errors of relying on an older black establishment while failing to reach younger black voters. Black voters realised that Donald Trump was explicitly appealing to those Confederate flag waving white voters who still attempt to bring out the rebel banner every year in South Carolina since its removal. And many African-Americans were simply not convinced that Clinton was offering an alternative that, in substance rather than rhetoric, was much better.

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By contrast, when Democratic candidate Doug Jones pulled off one of the most profound upsets in recent years by winning a Senate seat in the deep red state of Alabama in 2017, Jones’ almost total support among black voters (96%) and particularly black women (98%), and the high turnout rates among these groups, were the decisive factors in this victory. Black voters, and particularly black women, have also come out strong for Democrats in Virginia, swinging that state blue in recent years.

In short, when black voters are enthusiastic, Democrats can win competitive elections, even in the Republican stronghold of the deep South. When black voters are less motivated to come out in force, Democrats lose. So a party that has taken the black vote for granted can no longer afford to do so.

Democratic politicians seem to be recognising this. For decades, Congress has resisted any consideration of the issue of reparations for slavery as well as “Jim Crow” segregation and other forms of discrimination against black Americans (every year since 1989, the late Representative John Conyers would introduce the bill to create a reparations commission, to no avail). Last year, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave her blessings for the House to hold a highly-publicised hearing on the issue, inviting testimony from experts such as noted public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose highly influential article “The Case for Reparations” had several years earlier revived the public debate over redressing slavery and subsequent racial discrimination) and prompting several presidential candidates to endorse the endeavour.

More generally, the Democratic candidates have been adding some much-needed specificity to their appeals to black voters. Tom Steyer has strongly endorsed reparations for African-Americans. Amy Klobuchar made a point during the most recent debate of calling out voter-suppression efforts in various Republican-controlled states that are “discriminating with surgical precision against African-American voters”.

Bernie Sanders, who continues to approach nearly every issue through the lens of economic justice, is careful to highlight the disproportionate impact economic and legal inequalities have on “African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.” Pete Buttigieg, whose current front-runner status is bound to evaporate if he continues to struggle to gain traction with black voters, has proposed an ambitious set of policies, called the Douglass Plan after famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. These cover everything from healthcare to education to housing to criminal justice and law enforcement reforms.

Again, these could all fall by the wayside once the election season is over. But given the ways the black vote can make or break elections,  it would be foolish of the Democrats to continue with business as usual. Even Republicans seem to understand this, as noted by Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to peel off black support from Democrats, even at the margins.

And so, on February 29, South Carolina will reshape (and possibly decide) the Democratic race. I still think that Biden will eke out a win there; he knows that the state, and the African American vote, are crucial to Democrats’ chances. As the former Vice President said during a rally in South Carolina as the New Hampshire results were being released:

“Up till now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party, the African-American community… 99.9%. That’s the percentage of African-American voters who’ve not yet had the chance to vote in America… You can’t be the Democratic nominee, you can’t win a general election as a Democrat unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters.”

I think Biden will hold on in SC, but only barely; Bernie Sanders, whose message resonates especially with young black voters, and Tom Steyer, who’s flooded the state with advertisements touting a message of economic growth, racial justice and beating Donald Trump, will most probably come in very close second and third in the race.

South Carolina is the Democratic Party’s first big platform to demonstrate how it will work to earn the black vote. A close result, with several candidates splitting the vote, will show that no wing of the party can take black voter support for granted anymore.

Five years ago, South Carolina finally acknowledged that its Confederate flag was an outdated relic that belonged in a museum rather than a place of prominence in the state’s capital. Later this month, the state may show that unquestioned and unrewarded black support for Democratic Party is also an outdated notion.

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