Black voters finally get to flex their power in South Carolina Democratic primary

Mary Miles sits in a near-empty church in Columbia, S.C., at the end of a weeknight church service and testifies to what she sees as the state of play in the Democratic primary underway in her home state. 

The favourite to win? Probably Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice-president, says the 71-year-old pastor’s daughter, lawyer and onetime member of the state legislature.

Why is he the favourite here? Because of his association with Barack Obama — the ex-president whose omnipresence permeates Biden’s stump speeches, sprinkled with turns of phrase like, “Barack and I,” and “I said to Barack.”

So, does Miles consider him a strong presidential candidate now that Biden might finally get a desperately needed first primary win in the first state where African-American voters play a decisive role?

She has doubts, she says, that the mild-mannered moderate is up to the task. 

Job No. 1 for South Carolina Democrats, Miles says, is to anoint the candidate likeliest to defeat President Donald Trump this fall.

Mary Miles, a lawyer, former lawmaker, and parishioner at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., just wants a Democratic candidate who can beat Donald Trump. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

“I like Biden. I think he’s a great person. But I think he does not have the kind of zest I’m looking for,” said Miles, who prefers Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“Most people here in South Carolina — the black people, at least — they really, really want to get Trump out of office.”

State’s politics steeped in history of Civil War, segregation

Miles shares that view after a busy Wednesday night at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, the South Carolina state capital, as parishioners empty out.

Like so many political stories in the U.S. South, the tale of this place, and this election, involves race and begins with the Civil War. 

Newly freed slaves built the black Baptist church Miles attends, as the war ended in 1865. That very same year, a few blocks away, the white Baptist church was burned down by Yankee troops.

Two adjacent Baptist congregations were deeply affected by the Civil War — a black church, left, was built in 1865 in South Carolina’s state capital upon the liberation of slaves, and a white church, right, was burned down by Union troops. The congregations remain distinct today. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

The hands of history have reached into subsequent centuries and kept the congregations apart.

White and black parishes remain separate in prayer and distinct in politics — mostly worshipping in different places, voting for different parties since that war.

It was here, a century later, that the end of segregation helped launch a nationwide political realignment, as this state’s senator, Strom Thurmond, spearheaded the stampede of white southern voters from the Democratic Party.


Black voters moved in the other direction, flocking from Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party to the Democratic Party, and within a few decades, African-Americans became the dominant force in party primaries here.

Now, black voters in this state have power, although not so much in a general election, where Republicans dominate, winning the state by 14 points in 2016. 

Democratic kingmakers

But they’ve been kingmakers in Democratic presidential contests. 

African-Americans have held an increasing majority of this state’s Democratic primary votes, and the primary winner here in recent decades has almost always become the Democratic presidential nominee. 

Regardless of whether or not the state plays such a decisive role this time, it could, at the very least, upend the contest by reviving Biden’s enfeebled campaign.

People listen during a Biden campaign event in Sumter, S.C., on Friday. The South Carolina primary could revive Biden’s campaign or be the death of it. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

What’s beyond doubt is the absolute requirement for Democrats to inspire black voters more than they did in 2016. 

With Obama off the ticket, African-American turnout plunged six per cent nationally in the 2016 election, dropping by 683,000 votes from four years earlier, and it was especially damaging in Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. (Turnout wasn’t helped by what the Mueller report described as a Russian social-media campaign that pumped out messages aimed at discouraging participation.)

Obama ‘definitely not a liability’

On what passes for a frosty morning in South Carolina — a few degrees above freezing — one retired Air Force colonel lined up to see Biden speak in a school gym in the small town of Sumter. 

Retired lieutenant-colonel Al Davis reminisced about driving eight hours to stand on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2009, to witness Obama’s inauguration.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Al Davis, 74, stood in the cold for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and did the same at a Biden rally Friday. He says he supports Biden for his character and experience, not just his connection to Obama. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

Asked if he is supporting Biden, the 74-year-old said: “I wouldn’t be standing in this cold if I wasn’t.” 

Davis said Biden is more than just Obama’s former right-hand man. He called Biden experienced and trustworthy and, importantly, he said, Biden can beat Trump.

“People love Joe because of who Joe is,” Davis said. “[But] the fact he’s a friend of Obama helps his credibility — definitely not a liability.”

WATCH | CBC’s Katie Simpson reports on Biden’s last stand in South Carolina:

Joe Biden’s connection to Obama’s legacy and appeal to black voters could be key to a must-win primary in South Carolina. 2:01

Who’s feeling the Bern — and who’s not

The conversations Democrats are having in the South aren’t all that different from the ones happening elsewhere in the country.

Younger voters in the South are also leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to polls and on-the-ground anecdotes.

Big, boisterous rallies greeted Sanders in South Carolina, including one that drew a loud young crowd at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., west of Columbia.

Some of the African-American students in that mostly white crowd said Sanders is addressing issues that matter to all young people.

Sanders drew huge cheers by promising tuition-free public colleges, free child care, legalized marijuana, parental leave, day care and universal public health care.

Friends Jessica Kuria, left, 20, and Scotdaija Jenkins, right, 19, attended a rally at their college in Spartanburg, S.C., for front-runner Bernie Sanders. They credited Sanders for addressing issues they’re passionate about, including eliminating skyrocketing student debt. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

Jessica Kuria, 20, a second-year student at Wofford studying biology and Spanish, said that despite having scholarships, she’s starting to rack up student debt as tuition and lodging cost $60,000 US per year.

Her friend Scotdaija Jenkins, 19, said she’s already $10,000 in debt in only her second semester — and that’s despite several scholarships.

Like virtually everyone interviewed here, both young women said they’d vote for any Democrat against Trump.

But they disputed the idea that Biden is the best candidate. 

Sanders arrives at a campaign rally at Finlay Park in Columbia, with rapper and activist Killer Mike, second from left, who also campaigned for Sanders in 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sanders barely mentions rivals

Sanders himself has already begun auditioning for the role of best general-election candidate against Trump.

Sanders barely mentioned any Democratic rival in the speech at Wofford; he spent most of it bashing Trump, then listed his poll numbers in a hypothetical matchup against the current president.

“Take a look at the last 50 national polls. You will find that in 47 of those 50, Bernie beats Trump,” said Sanders, before only briefly mentioning Biden, suggesting his old friend from the U.S. Senate won’t turn out the necessary votes in November.

A young Sanders supporter, Joel Hughes, agreed.

Joel Hughes, speaking after a large, boisterous Sanders rally at Wofford College, is one of many younger voters supporting Sanders. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

He said he’s seen the old images of Sanders being arrested at a civil rights protest.

“I saw him handcuffed to black people, fighting alongside with them,” Hughes said.

The Greenville, S.C., resident called Sanders an authentic candidate who’s remained committed to the same ideas for decades and who gives young people something to get excited about — a fairer society that offers equal opportunity.

“[Biden is] really only up there for his name recognition. … [because of] President Obama,” Hughes said. “Bernie Sanders has found a way to excite his base — to bring out people who aren’t normally involved.”

Sanders supporters at a rally in Columbia. Sanders has energized young voters across racial lines. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

‘I’d vote for the devil, probably, against Trump’

One point a vast majority of Democrats seem to agree on is that regardless of who the nominee is, they will vote against Trump in the general election.

In a short lineup of several dozen people outside a Biden rally, Tamilla Green, a retired army surgical technician, said she’d vote for Sanders if she had to. In that same lineup, Davis, the retired military man, concurred. 

“I’d vote for the devil, probably, against Trump,” he said.

But he’s not exactly effusive in his assessment of Sanders. He calls him an unreliable socialist with no chance of delivering on his promises.

People stand in line for early voting for the Democratic presidential primary in Columbia on Thursday. Final results of the primary are expected Saturday night. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Back in church, Miles called Sanders an inflexible ideologue living in a fantasy world, incapable of explaining how he’d pay for his agenda. (Sanders this week did release details of how he plans to pay for his major policies.)

Asked why so many young people seem so inspired by Sanders’s candidacy, she said, “Because they’re in a fantasy world also.”

Given how often the front-runner in this state has mentioned his ties to Obama and the flood of recent ads from the billionaire set to enter the race next Tuesday, Mike Bloomberg, appearing to exaggerate his coziness with Obama, it seems appropriate to ask what would happen if Obama were running in this primary.

“Oh, my goodness,” said Miles. “He would tear those people apart.”  

On this, at least, Kuria, the young Sanders supporter, agrees with the older Sanders-skeptic.

“People would vote for Barack again,” she said.

An audience members listen to Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at a campaign event in Sumter. Black voters in South Carolina know their vote could be decisive in winnowing the field of candidates in the Democratic presidential race. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)