South Carolina Democrats are preparing to defend their turf amid backlash over what’s likely to be the state’s preeminent place in the 2024 presidential primary calendar.
The Palmetto State is tentatively set to vote first in the lineup after a blessing from President Biden’s White House and a governing body of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which saw its diversity as reason to move the date up.
But as Democrats in other states watched their chances to kick off the next cycle diminish, they started poking holes in the case for South Carolina, prompting an effort among the state’s elected and party officials and outside advocates to shield it from attacks and quiet voices of dissent.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Trav Robertson, the chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, in an interview with The Hill on Friday. “We’re going to continue to talk about the positives of our state, we’re going to continue to talk about what we add to this process, and we’re going to communicate that to the DNC members and to influencers.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to present our message and the things South Carolina offers,” he said.
The idea that the state of South Carolina, which currently votes fourth — after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — could soar to first in the draft has thrilled many Democrats who believe a rejiggering to how the party conducts its primaries is overdue.
While relatively small, the state’s outsized importance was on display just a few years ago, when Biden’s presidential campaign was reenergized after Black voters delivered him a necessary win. That momentum allowed the third-time White House seeker to take home the majority of states on Super Tuesday and lock up the Democratic nomination quickly and decisively, moving the party forward in unison ahead of November.
Although Biden’s defeat of former President Trump was a major relief for the party at the time, critics now say his endorsement of South Carolina feels like he’s returning a political favor, rather than objectively assessing other states trying to make compelling cases.
But proponents of South Carolina argue that thinking is misguided.
Biden’s green light, in these Democrats’ minds, speaks more to his commitment to elevate and reward Black voters who have made a substantial impact on the party than any effort to indulge his own personal loyalties.
“Obviously whoever does go first is going to have a lot of attention placed on them,” said Russell Ott (D), a state House member representing a rural district about 30 minutes outside of Columbia. “I understand that everyone is going to be actively competing for it.”
“The president acknowledged what we bring to the table and I think that speaks for itself, personally,” Ott said. “I’m certainly biased.”
South Carolina officials like Ott believe that Biden’s explicit preference shows he’s also cognizant of historical trends and willing to try to preserve them. South Carolina has often chosen the Democratic nominee who goes on to win in the fall, offering a sense of reassurance in a political moment filled with uncertainties.
As close as the 2020 election was between Biden and Trump, Democrats believe 2024 will be another nail-biter. A strong nominee emerging from South Carolina would help boost the party’s chances in the general election, supporters say.
“We have an extremely strong track record of showing that the candidates that do well here are the ones that obviously go on to be successful overall in the election process,” Ott said.
For all the confidence, there are still private conversations happening in tandem among Democrats in other states, including those close to the process in Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. While they aren’t backed by Biden or his closest allies, including Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) or DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, some believe those Democrats have strong arguments to keep them in contention.
Many would like to see bigger potential returns from hard-fought investments — for example, what happened recently in Georgia, when voters reelected Sen. Raphael Warnock to join Democrats in the majority for a six-year term in the Senate.
Aware of that, South Carolina Democrats are increasing their defensive strategy through messaging, organization and outreach to bolster their case before the DNC officially votes as a whole body early next year.
Robertson, who has steered the party through several campaign cycles, notes that Georgia and North Carolina have media overlap with South Carolina and have reaped the rewards of Democrats’ early and consistent presence there each presidential election.
“South Carolina has more split media markets with Georgia and North Carolina, and as a result of that, when you campaign in South Carolina, you’re also working towards the purpling of Georgia and North Carolina,” he said. “Those two states have benefitted exponentially from the presidential primary that occurs in this state.”
In addition, there’s an operational presence formed in South Carolina among campaign workers, field organizers and volunteers that other states lean on year after year. Robertson says that has also added to Democrats’ ability to help twist the state in their direction recently.
“There’s not been a general election since 2008 that a presidential campaign has not utilized the infrastructure they built in South Carolina to recruit volunteers to go participate in the ground game in Georgia and North Carolina,” he said.
The emotional nature of the process goes beyond just battles between party officials and individuals lobbying for their home states. The decision also includes a variety of other factors, like existing state laws on the books in some places. That has contributed to the extra attention on South Carolina, where the state party determines its primary date.
Some Democrats say that while they weren’t surprised about the pushback, they believe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential reward South Carolina can offer. It’s not just that it has a sizable number of Black voters, but that tactically, it’s also small and inexpensive enough to compete in to give multiple kinds of candidates a shot.
The geography also matters. Democrats say that the more rural areas can provide a blueprint for other states looking to make inroads with voters who are traditionally overlooked or unengaged. And the relatively low cost to compete there means candidates can spend time in a variety of places and will inherently have to fine-tune their message to fit different constituencies.
That’s important, they say, when competing in an eventual general election.
“It’s a slap in the face to — not just Black voters — but to South Carolinians who’ve been very consistent,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia-based Democratic strategist and close Clyburn ally.
“I think people will continue to have whatever conversations they want, and that’s fine, but I also think you’ll continue to see and the case be made for South Carolina,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things we can be debating about in this party, but this ain’t one. Especially when it comes from the leader of our party.”