When pundits discuss the Democratic presidential primary here in South Carolina, they usually focus on one issue: Who will black voters support? It’s an important question; African Americans are a critical part of the Democratic coalition, yet they are mostly absent from the primary season’s first Democratic contests in Iowa, where 2016 Democratic caucus participants were 91% white and 3% black, and New Hampshire, where they were 93% white and 2% black. South Carolina, whose 2016 Democratic primary electorate was 61% black and 35% white, is the first state in which black voters will flex the muscles that have been key to electing Democratic presidents for a long time.
Still, white Democrats are a force in South Carolina; 35% is not nothing. It seems obvious, if not often discussed, that the strongest candidate will be the one who can pull the highest number of votes from both groups.
So when a line of more than 1,000 people, the large majority of them white, snaked through the Myrtle Beach Convention Center at midday Monday, all waiting to see Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race, it said something about the California senator’s appeal — especially after Harris earlier drew strong crowds in heavily black areas of the state.
Harris has been on a roll after the first Democratic debate on June 27. In the debate’s most-discussed face-off, she went straight after front-runner Joe Biden over the issue — who would have predicted? — of bussing in the 1970s. To some moderates and Republicans, Harris’s attack made little sense — Biden was clearly right — and she partially backed away from her position later. But a lot of Democrats liked the fact that she boldly took it to the leader, leaving Biden sputtering and confused.
A CNN poll taken shortly after the debate showed Biden dropping 10 points, with Harris rising nine. A Quinnipiac poll taken at the same time showed an even more dramatic change among black voters: Biden down 17 points and Harris up 16. In Myrtle Beach, Harris was still riding the wave. Voters white and black were smitten.
“I love her intelligence, her courage, her articulation, her experience, her grasp of policy,” said Lisa Hinkson, who is white and from nearby Pawleys Island. “I love her composure — all those things appeal to me greatly about her. She’s awe-inspiring.”
”You can just put ditto,” said Hinkson’s friend Joe DiLorenzo, of Carolina Forest.
”She was dynamic, and I like her vision,” said Ray Smith, who is black, from Murrells Inlet.
Is he considering any other candidate?
”Not at this point,” Smith answered. “I’m pledging all my support to her.”
”Same thing,” said Smith’s wife, Kathy. “I’m all for her.”
In South Carolina, a Biden-Harris race has special resonance, not just black and white but past and present. In earlier times, Biden traveled to South Carolina to deliver eulogies for Strom Thurmond, who served as governor of the state from 1947-51 and as senator from 1956-2003, and for Ernest Hollings, who was governor from 1959-63 and senator from 1966-2005. Biden, who served in the Senate from 1973-2009, was a younger colleague of both men. (As it happened this week, Biden was in South Carolina at the same time as Harris, making news by apologizing for his comments about being able to work with old segregationist Senate colleagues James O. Eastland, who served in the Senate from 1943-1978, and Herman Talmadge, who served from 1957-1981.)
Biden, of course, went on to spend eight years as vice president for the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. But even those years are receding in the Age of Trump, and Biden will be 78 years old on Inauguration Day, 2021, the same age President Trump would be upon leaving office if he serves two terms. Biden is, in short, a man out of the past.
Harris is the present.
And South Carolina is no longer Strom Thurmond’s or Ernest Hollings’ state. It has a black senator and has twice elected an Indian-American woman as governor. Many white Democrats would be entirely comfortable supporting Harris over Biden. “I think white voters have a thought about Harris as an alternative to Biden,” said longtime South Carolina political scientist David Woodard. “Biden gave the Thurmond and Hollings eulogies, but they are old news. Newer voters are open to a liberal, urban, and multicultural nominee for the Democrats. Harris might fit the bill.”
In Myrtle Beach, voters of all types worried about Biden’s age. In a talk after Harris left the stage, Chad Horton and Leslie and Willie Byrd, who are black and from Myrtle Beach, said they like Harris but have not fully decided on a candidate yet. In any event, they had real concerns about Biden.
”Honestly, I don’t think he’s going to stay in the lead,” said Horton.
”I don’t think so either,” said Leslie Byrd. “I think he’s dropping off. He’s losing momentum right now.”
”He’s getting slow,” added Horton. “He can’t think that quick, on the go. He gets shaken. I don’t think he could beat Trump on stage in a real debate. I think Trump would just tear him up.”
Willie Byrd said he had been thinking about supporting Biden. “But now, since I’m getting a feel for him, I’m kind of saying no.”
Dennis and Joann Fahey, who are white and live in Myrtle Beach, were both impressed by Harris — “She’s great on her feet” — and concerned about Biden.
”I like the guy,” said Dennis. “We’re from the South Jersey-Philadelphia area, so we’ve known him for a long time. We think maybe his time has come and gone.”
Has Biden lost a step?
”He might have. That’s what I’m saying.”
Ray Smith, too, was troubled. “I don’t think he (Biden) has the energy to last all the way. There is a year and a half left of this, and we need somebody who is dynamic and has the vision of all the people.”
For anyone who has watched Harris on the Senate Judiciary Committee, it’s important to know that on the campaign trail she has adopted an entirely different public persona. She is warm and inclusive and deeply and extravagantly grateful that you have taken the time to come visit with her.
”My goodness, I just want to thank everyone for this afternoon,” Harris told the crowd. “There are so many things that you could be doing with your time. And that you’ve chosen to spend it with us, it really means a lot to me. I want to just thank you, thank you for your time. I want to thank you for your time.”
It’s a Sen. Harris that, say, Attorney General William Barr or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh would not recognize.
Harris’s platform, of course, is pure woke progressivism. Much of the crowd was with her. But there were at least a few people looking for a bit of moderation. The first question when Harris finished speaking came from a man who wanted “Medicare for all” but worried about the dislocations caused by moving to a new system too quickly. He wanted to see preliminary steps, such as lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. Harris was conciliatory and appeared to satisfy him when she said, “It can’t just happen overnight — there will be a transition period.”
Later, a woman asked about immigration in a way that sent Harris into a revealing monologue.
”My name is Joanne, and I really, really want to beat Trump,” the woman began.
”Me too,” said Harris.
”I’m concerned that the Democrats are only focusing on the humanitarian problems at the border and are not putting forth policies that control or reduce the flow of immigrants from the Northern Triangle,” Joanne said. “How would you address President Trump when he claims the Democrats are for open borders?”
Harris began by ignoring the question. She talked about separating children from their parents. About people fleeing “murder capitals of the world” to come to the United States. About why a mother would would bring her child on a dangerous journey to this country. About the detention center she had recently visited in Homestead, Florida. “Stop the human rights abuses, and shut down these private detention facilities,” Harris declared forcefully.
Of course, that was not the question.
”Now, on the issue of border security,” Harris continued. “We have to enforce our laws and keep our border safe. It is part of what this president is trying to do to really misinform the American people to say that Democrats don’t care about border security. I can speak for myself: I am absolutely in favor of border security. We have to, any nation has to be concerned with that, and we of course do.”
Beyond her general declaration, Harris did not mention any measure she might pursue to make the border more secure. And she quickly flipped back to denouncing the president’s border barrier proposal — “By the way, that wall will not get built” — and told the audience that Americans are “being played” on immigration.
Perhaps some in the audience were unsatisfied with that. But immigration is just one issue of many. And on the whole, they went away happy.
Harris and Biden are not the only candidates in the South Carolina Democratic race. A number of people who came to Harris’s town hall said they were still shopping, that they have their eyes on others in addition to Harris. The Faheys are looking at others, as are the Byrds. While Chad Horton said he was leaning toward Harris, he also said he was looking at Elizabeth Warren.
“And I like Little Pete,” Horton added.
“Yeah, Little Pete,” Horton said with a laugh. Horton explained that he thought South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was sharp and did a good job dealing with the police shooting crisis in his city. But Horton liked Harris more.
It is still too early to see a definitive pattern in South Carolina.
Back in 2007 and 2008, Hillary Clinton was leading in the Democratic primary race here, but when black voters realized Barack Obama was the real deal, not a protest or show horse candidate, they flocked to support him.
Obama blew past Clinton in the Democratic primary on the strength of overwhelming black support, but he also won about 25% of white votes in a three-way race with Clinton and John Edwards.
That could, perhaps, be a model for Harris, in the Obama role, and Biden, in the Clinton role. “Hillary was popular early in 2008, but Obama devastated her in the last month,” said voter David Woodard. “Now, the old Hillary Clinton base of liberals who don’t fear UC Berkeley roots might be a potential group for Harris to rally.
If that happens, and Harris wins here, it could be the end of Biden.”