Why South Carolina Will Be the Most Important Early Primary

The following list of people have two major things in common. Can you spot what they are?

Vi Lyles
Stephen Benjamin
Keisha Lance Bottoms
Hardie Davis
Randall Woodfin
Stephen Reed
Chokwe Antar Lumumba
LaTora Cantrell
Sharon Weston Broome

They are all African American mayors of some of the largest cities in former Confederate states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Charles Blow pointed to this phenomenon as a way to explain what a lot of people don’t understand about the group of African American voters who live in the South.

According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, there are 1,200 majority-black towns and cities in America, about 1,000 of which are in the South. And the number of majority-black cities is on the rise.

In addition, almost all of the largest cities in the Deep South, as I have defined it, are majority-black with a black mayor.

Speaking of the South more broadly, every one of the top 10 states with the highest percent of black population is in the South.

From the research at Brookings, here’s a map of all of the majority-black towns and cities in the U.S., making it pretty clear where they are concentrated.

Noting that the emergence of municipal black power in these majority-black cities and towns began in the 1970s, Blow provides this observation.

I point all of this out because I believe that people’s relationship to power informs the way they see national politics in general and presidential politics in particular.

White working-class voters in the Rust Belt behave one way because they feel that they are losing power. Black voters in the South behave differently because they feel that they are gaining it.

These Southern black voters are in control of the power structure most intimately affecting their lives — local government…[they] may be less excited by a national revolution because they are living through a very real revolution on the ground.

Other than the long-shot exceptions of North Carolina and Georgia, these African American voters know that they won’t have much influence on the presidential election in these red states, but they have a chance to make their voices heard in the Democratic primary. The question is: what will they want to say?

The reason that is important comes from a recent report by NBC News documenting that African Americans will cast one in four ballots in the Democratic primary and, “since 1992, no candidate has won the Democratic nomination for president without winning a majority of the black vote.”

Right now, the most diverse field of candidates in any primary in our history seems to be a battle between four white people—including one woman. Conventional wisdom has it that the race is coming down to two moderates (Biden and Buttigieg) competing with two progressives (Warren and Sanders).

Under that scenario, African American voters in South Carolina will be the first among these southern states to weigh in. A recent Quinnipiac poll is fairly representative of where things stand in that state right now. Overall, Joe Biden has a 20-point lead.

Among white voters, Biden has 22 percent, while Warren receives 17 percent, with Sanders and Buttigieg each at 11 percent. Biden has a huge lead among black voters as he wins 44 percent. Sanders gets 10 percent, Warren has 8 percent, and Buttigieg receives less than one percent among black voters.

Given that the two moderates are on opposite ends of those results with African Americans (Biden with 44 percent and Buttigieg with less than one percent), the conventional wisdom about moderates vs. progressives doesn’t seem to hold.

There are those who suggest that the problem Buttigieg is facing with African Americans is his sexual orientation. But there is no data to suggest that any one racial group is more homophobic that others, so that is absurd. Blow is probably much more on target when he refers to African Americans basing their choice on trust.

But during the primaries, those Southern black voters have a chance to make their voices heard, to reward loyalty and fidelity, to support the candidates they feel they know and to spurn those they feel they don’t.

Not only has Buttigieg sympathized with white Trump voters who, in 2016, wanted to “burn the house down,” he sought to identify with Tea Party groups during his 2010 run for Indiana state treasurer. That happened around the same time that Tea Partiers were shouting epitaphs and spitting on Representative John Lewis, which would be a deal-breaker for any African American.

For all of his faults, Joe Biden isn’t proposing a revolution and has a history with southern African Americans as someone they both know and trust. That was also true of Hillary Clinton in 2008 prior to Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucuses.

But in 2020, the stakes are much higher. There is currently a white supremacist in the White House who Ta-Nehisi Coates recently described with this: “His entire identity is a negative identity, by which I mean he defines himself by his ability to take apart the legacy of Barack Obama.” So there are both personal and historical issues at stake in this election for African Americans. That explains why their overriding concern is electability.

Coming out of last week’s debate, one of the hottest topics has been to analyze why Cory Booker’s candidacy isn’t catching on, especially given his extraordinary performance in all of the debates. Here’s how one voter in South Carolina talked about him.

Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine has been a fan of Sen. Cory Booker since his days as Newark mayor. An admirer of his consensus-building style, she invited him into her home and said he “electrified the room.”

But she has not yet endorsed his campaign for president, and when asked why, she talks about her friends who worry his “Rise Up” message, a call for national healing and inspiration, would be a poor fit for the general election.

“He’s not a safe choice for some people, although people like what he has to say,” Devine said. “It’s not personally about him as much as people feel like they have to have someone who is going to win and beat Donald Trump.”

Zak Cheney-Rice put it more bluntly.

[M]oderates who prize electability are probably dead set on the notion that a white candidate with demonstrable appeal to more conservative voters is the better bet…Even the majority of black voters…want someone they’re fairly certain can and will win.

Like most candidates of color, neither Cory Booker nor Kamala Harris fit nicely into the categories of moderate vs progressive, which is what leads some in the media to claim that they lack a coherent message. To the extent that the narrative in this primary is captured by the two ends of a continuum defined by white Democrats, neither candidate will garner much media attention or be viewed as electable.

Meanwhile, African Americans in the south, who have a much more attuned sense of the racial dynamics that will play out in the lead-up to the November election, are hanging with the one trusted candidate that they think can weather that storm: Joe Biden. We’ll know more about whether that will hold once we see the results of the primary in South Carolina.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.