Putting the South Carolina Primary First Doesn’t Make Any Sense

Democrats have won South Carolina once in 60 years, the state is getting older and whiter, and plenty of battleground states would be a better fit. So why do Democrats want to put the state’s primary first? Because it helps Joe Biden and hurts the Left.

A man fills out a ballot at a voting booth in Mt Gilead, North Carolina. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

Wait ― South Carolina?

That’s the plan, as personally requested by President Joe Biden and approved near-unanimously by the Democratic Party Rules and Bylaws Committee this past Friday. If approved by the full Democratic National Committee (DNC), the new schedule would have the Palmetto State vote first on February 3, then New Hampshire, and now, Nevada three days later, Georgia a week after that, and Michigan after two more weeks. In effect, the plan pushes up the diverse, regionally significant states that have become pivotal to Democratic success in elections, while giving South Carolina the pivotal position currently claimed, in different ways, by both Iowa and New Hampshire.

To be blunt, this doesn’t make much sense. South Carolina hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976, a blip in an otherwise unbroken red streak dating back to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 2005. Six of its last eight governors were Republican, and it’s had twenty straight years of a GOP trifecta at the state level, something the Democrats haven’t achieved even once in the last three decades. Biden lost the state by twelve points in 2020, an election that also saw the Democratic senate candidate (and current DNC chair) thumped by ten points despite raising more money than any Senate candidate in history.

Simply put, as the current trend lines go, South Carolina isn’t a battleground state, and Democratic chances of winning it anytime soon are minimal. So why is it being given the king-making power to set the front-runner and hand them potentially insurmountable momentum?

Both Biden and South Carolina representative James Clyburn have pointed to the state’s diversity to explain the choice. “You cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color ― and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters,” Biden wrote in his letter to the committee requesting the changes.

But that can’t be right. South Carolina may be 27 percent black, but it’s nearly 70 percent white, only 2 percent Asian, and 6.4 percent Latino. While the rest of the country has gotten more diverse, the state is about as white as it was more than a decade ago — whiter, actually — with the 2020 Census putting it at the very bottom in terms of how little the diversity of its racial and ethnic makeup had changed.

If diversity is the priority, then Georgia — an actual battleground state now and one that’s taken on growing strategic and symbolic significance in Democratic thinking in recent years — is a much better candidate, with fewer whites, a higher proportion of blacks, and significantly more Asians and Latinos than South Carolina. And strictly speaking, Nevada — another state Democrats have actually won in the last sixty years and in the last four elections no less — comes the closest to reflecting the actual demographic makeup of the country as a whole.

Democrats have wasted no time in calling critics of this proposal racist, casting any objection to this scheme as dismissal or disrespect of African Americans, and stressing the importance of giving black voters a leading voice in choosing the nominee. Here’s the inconvenient fact they won’t tell you: that it was a considerable number of old, white voters, in a state getting older and whiter, who played a key role in giving Biden his lopsided victory in the state two years ago.

Look at the voter roll demographics for South Carolina’s democratic primary in 2016 and 2020, and you’ll notice something pretty quick. While the number of “nonwhite” voters went up by more than 24,000 to hit 268,355 in 2020, this was dwarfed by the nearly 142,000-person surge in the white voter rolls over those four years, giving white voters a 230-vote edge that year over their nonwhite counterparts — who, let’s remember, counted a significant number of Latinos and other ethnic groups, not just African Americans. Meanwhile, among age groups that year, it was the forty-five to sixty-four and sixty-five-and-up crowds that saw the biggest gains, with the surge in all voters under forty-four not even coming close to equaling the gains made by the (already sizable) forty-five to sixty-four crowd alone. (The over-sixty-fives easily saw the biggest gains).

This was reflected in the voting results. While exit polls had Biden dominating among the black vote, the Washington Post also found that it was the whitest, wealthiest areas of the state that saw the biggest jumps in turnout, with Biden likewise dominating among this group, as well as among elderly voters more generally. And since South Carolina is an open primary, and that year saw no GOP contest, it’s all but certain a good chunk of these were Republican voters. (According to exit polls, Biden ended up winning fully 51 percent of “moderate or conservative” voters, a far larger margin than other ideologies).

In other words, while Biden would have almost certainly won the state that year no matter what, his massive, nearly thirty-point domination of his next-closest rival, Bernie Sanders, was partly propelled by a surge of old, white, wealthy, and conservative voters. Democrats touted these results as a good omen for the general election (“These numbers should scare Republicans,” the state party’s chair said at the time), only for them to be decimated at both the national and state levels come November anyway. And it hasn’t gotten better: this year, the GOP incumbent won reelection as governor with the largest margin in more than twenty years.

Protect the President ― and Block the Left

It objectively makes little to no sense — from the standpoint of electoral strategy, ideology, or even representation — to give South Carolina of all states such a powerful role in deciding an ostensibly progressive party’s electoral prospects. So why on Earth is it happening?

The most important reason is that Biden is a vulnerable incumbent who needs to guard against a potential primary challenge. In spite of a surprisingly strong Democratic showing in the midterms, Biden’s approval rating is still underwater, and despite putting on a public air of confidence in the president, both Democratic lawmakers and party apparatchiks are less than enthusiastic when given the chance to speak honestly, with even Michelle Obama declining to endorse a second Biden run.

By putting in first place the state that single-handedly salvaged his 2020 campaign, whose state party is dominated by a loyal ally, and which is sure to vote for him in large numbers, Biden can set up an early momentum to stave off a potential challenger. As David Axelrod put it to the New York Times: “He’s created a firewall against any insurgency.”

But there’s also another reason, which is that it would advance a long-standing goal of corporate Democrats to strengthen the hand of party conservatives and limit the chances of voters nominating a progressive.

Back in the 1980s, after civil rights legislation effectively flipped the entire South red and Ronald Reagan used this realignment to win several landslides, Biden himself (though hailing from a border state) was part of a group of Southern Democrats who pushed to give Southern states a greater say in the party’s nominating process. They hoped this would tilt the eventual pick in a conservative direction and help the party compete with Republicans in the once solidly Democratic region.

The party’s presidential hopefuls made this strategy clear, as just one example, in 1983, while converging in Georgia for a fundraising-record-breaking black-tie gala for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, named for the two slave-owning former Democratic presidents. Ohio senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn announced to those assembled that “the South isn’t just in the mainstream, it is the mainstream,” while Georgia party chief Paul Weston insisted that “whoever wins the nomination has to have the South and to get the South he must be a centrist candidate.”

“Over and over, southerners who collared the candidates at cocktail parties warned against catering to homosexuals, unions, feminists, and other groups that traditionally are detested by southern conservatives,” the Miami Herald reported at the time.

The major legacy of this effort was Super Tuesday, the primary voting extravaganza that sees the largest number of states vote for a nominee on the same day, and which had initially been comprised entirely of fourteen Southern and border states. The strategy initially didn’t work: black progressive Jesse Jackson, born in South Carolina, did tremendously well the first time it was tried in 1988 to the horror of its creators, and Massachusetts liberal Michael Dukakis ended up becoming the nominee when all was said and done.

But the party’s Southern bloc got its wish four years later, after the party turned South Carolina — having been a caucus that took place four days after Super Tuesday — into a primary held three days before the fourteen-state extravaganza. Thanks to the change, the conservative state had a pivotal new status of conferring momentum to a candidate going into the pivotal Tuesday, when a large chunk of all party delegates (one-third in 2020) would be doled out.

That year, Arkansas “moderate” Bill Clinton was the major beneficiary of the change, having spent more time and resources than anyone else campaigning in South Carolina, ultimately taking the nomination. Nearly thirty years later, the move again worked as intended, when the more conservative Biden’s domination in the conservative state upended the narrative of the race, halting his rival’s sense of momentum and granting him more than $100 million worth of free media over the three days going into Super Tuesday, despite having fared dismally in both the diverse state of Nevada and the lily-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Even so, the Southerners’ strategy on the whole had mixed success, since those two states continued to kick off voting and so set the narrative in ways not necessarily helpful for the party’s centrists. But replacing them with South Carolina could have a game-changing effect, letting a state where even its (mostly older) black voters tend to be more conservative, or at least more loyal to the party establishment, have this momentum-setting power.

Whether or not this will actually go through remains to be seen, since it’s already meeting resistance from establishment Democrats. Some of that is, unsurprisingly, from Iowa and New Hampshire officials reluctant to give up their states’ positions in the schedule, but it’s also come from Democrats from other states who prefer putting Nevada first, including the PACs for both the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses.

The party might end up thanking these naysayers. The United States is a different country than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when the conventional wisdom held a candidate had to be anti-union, socially conservative, and make racist dog whistles to win the presidency. Giving South Carolina an outsize role in picking the nominee might be good for Biden, but it may not prove all that good for the party’s future electoral fortunes.