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If South Carolina Voted First In The Democratic Presidential Primary, Would Black Democrats Have A Stronger Voice?

Despite objections from leaders and state party officials in Georgia and New Hampshire, a Democratic National Committee panel voted on Wednesday to move forward with President Biden’s plan to drastically revamp the party’s 2024 presidential primary process. Biden wants to remove Iowa’s caucus as the leadoff in the nominating calendar — a position it has held since 1972 — and give the first-in-the-nation honor to South Carolina instead, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, then Georgia and finally Michigan.

The reason for the changes seem straightforward — and practical: Biden and other Democrats say they want a calendar that accurately reflects the party’s diverse slate of voters. Iowa is a smallish state whose demographic makeup is far less analogous to the larger Democratic Party than South Carolina, which is more racially diverse. (In 2020, Black voters made up a whopping 60 percent of the Democratic electorate.) Throwing the primary calendar into disarray, Biden wrote in a letter to the DNC committee that it was “unacceptable” that Black voters, who have been the backbone of the Democratic electorate for decades, “have been pushed to the back of the early primary process” and that it was “time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.”

But does earlier necessarily mean louder? And would Biden’s move really give all Black voters more of a voice — or is it more of a reward for the state that saved his bacon in 2020? At least in the last few contested cycles, South Carolina was arguably the decisive state. So moving it first could streamline the nomination process. But there’s another scenario that’s equally as likely: that South Carolina’s role changes from picking presidential candidates to winnowing large fields. And while the reshuffling would allow more diverse states to weigh in first, it wouldn’t necessarily give Black voters more power.

Stacked bar charts showing the demographic breakdown of states in the current and proposed order of the presidential primary process. Even though the U.S. has a Black population of 14%, Iowa, the leadoff in the current calendar, has a share of 4%. Making South Carolina as the leadoff in the proposed order will give its larger share of Black voters – 27% -- an earlier say in the primaries.
Stacked bar charts showing the demographic breakdown of states in the current and proposed order of the presidential primary process. Even though the U.S. has a Black population of 14%, Iowa, the leadoff in the current calendar, has a share of 4%. Making South Carolina as the leadoff in the proposed order will give its larger share of Black voters – 27% -- an earlier say in the primaries.

That’s, in part, because there’s a difference between removing overwhelmingly white states from the front of the queue and giving Black voters more power. And moving just one state cannot change the whole process. You’d have to diversify the order significantly for both of those things to be true — and that’s proving easier said than done. Already, two of the affected states, New Hampshire and Georgia, which would hold their primaries second and fourth, respectively, under Biden’s proposed lineup — are in defiance, though national Democrats are giving both states until June to comply with the party’s goal of a new early-state order. Iowa Democrats, for their part, aren’t thrilled by the news, either, and are reportedly debating bucking national Democrats’ wishes.

In putting this proposal forth, Biden offered an implicit rebuke of Iowa and New Hampshire, the two overwhelmingly white states that rejected him in 2020. But the odd thing about Biden’s proposal is that South Carolina — because of its geographic and demographic diversity — already has a lot of power. Typically, Iowa and New Hampshire’s role has been to narrow the candidate field. That’s an important function and one that officials from both states are vociferously trying to cling to. (New Hampshire is reportedly determined to maintain its first-in-the-nation primary status, which they say is solidified under state law.) But, over time, South Carolina has served an arguably more worthy function: rebuffing or embracing the earlier decisions made by the overwhelmingly white — and more liberal — Democrats in New England and the Midwest. Since 1992, the winner of the South Carolina Democratic primary has gone on to win the nomination — with one exception. In 2004, South Carolina native John Edwards won the state’s primary, but didn’t get the presidential nod.vice presidential nomination that year.

">1 So, at least in recent years, if a Democratic candidate couldn’t appeal to South Carolina’s Democratic voters, he or she was unlikely to win the nomination or the presidency.

What would it mean if South Carolina voted first in the Democratic primary?

“The road to heaven and the White House runs through South Carolina,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based out of South Carolina. “I don’t care how red or blue any district is, and I don’t care how good of a candidate someone may be in any other scenario: No one can be the Democratic nominee for president without having strong support among Black voters.”

South Carolina Democratic primary winners consistently clinch their party’s nomination

Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina finishes of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates who went on to win their parties’ nominations, 1992–2020

Year Candidate Iowa New Hampshire South Carolina Won party nomination?
1992 Bill Clinton 4th 2nd 1st вÑВљâВЂВњ
2000* Al Gore 1st 1st 1st вÑВљâВЂВњ
2004 John Kerry 1st 1st 2nd вÑВљâВЂВњ
2008 Barack Obama 1st 2nd 1st вÑВљâВЂВњ
2016 Hillary Clinton 1st 2nd 1st вÑВљâВЂВњ
2020 Joe Biden 4th 5th 1st вÑВљâВЂВњ

*In 2000, Democrats held a caucus in South Carolina versus a primary.
Uncommitted delegates included in placement ranking.

Source: News Reports

So how would putting South Carolina first change things? Putting the state in the position to winnow could have a big impact on which candidates are considered viable in the first place. Given that the state’s Democratic electorate skews older and more moderate, it’s possible that a certain type of candidate would stand to benefit most from the switch-up: one more like Biden himself

Would Black candidates benefit, though? Maybe not, because there’s both “a supply and demand issue,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “I don’t assume that moving South Carolina first immediately privileges candidates of color — or candidates who bring other types of diversity,” she said, noting that it’s unlikely that a change to the order would have helped the Black candidates in the Democratic primary in 2020. “[Kamala] Harris dropped out of the race before we even got to the primaries, as did [Cory] Booker, so there were other factors that weeded them out beyond the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.”

It’s also not clear that moving South Carolina to the front of the queue would disenfranchise candidates without significant Black support, either, said Jennifer Chudy, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. That’s because there’s evidence that the party establishment favors certain presidential candidates, and, because of that, Chudy said she could envision a scenario in which the results of South Carolina’s primary are dismissed if they don’t line up with what the larger party wants. “I can see a narrative being created that dismisses winners and losers out of that system and does so on the basis of the state’s heavily Black vote,” she said.

All that’s to say that going first could lead to mixed results — both for South Carolina and Black voters. South Carolina could get more attention and advertising dollars and its local issues are likely to become national ones — but that doesn’t automatically translate into a more decisive role.

“Maybe, in a best-case scenario, candidates invest a lot of time in South Carolina and Black voters there whereas they used to go to corn fairs in Iowa,” Chudy said. “But even if there is some real effort in the ground game there, it doesn’t necessarily matter because there are many primaries that follow almost immediately after.” So even if there is a definitive result in South Carolina, she said, it’s not clear that it would carry to the states that follow.

There’s an argument, too, that choosing the nominee after the field has narrowed is actually a more powerful position. “There’s power and leverage in being the first place that candidates have to pass through,” Gillespie said. “But there’s also a case to be made for Black voters to want to hold their cards close to their chest until South Carolina to see whether certain candidates are viable.” In 2008, for example, Gillespie said that former President Barack Obama’s first-place win in Iowa was an important signal to South Carolinians that he could win non-Black votes, too. “And so you can see an argument, perhaps, for maintaining the status quo, especially when the leading candidates are non-white.”

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But the aspects of Biden’s plan that seem likeliest to empower Black voters actually have less to do with South Carolina and more to do with what happens to Michigan and Georgia since they also have large Black populations. And, at least right now, it’s unlikely that Georgia, which has the highest Black population share of the newly-proposed early states, plays ball given that the Republican secretary of state is steadfast on holding both the Republican and Democratic primary on the same day. (Republican officials in the state claim that holding two separate primaries would put an unnecessary strain on counties and poll workers.) 

So while it’s more clear how the state itself would benefit from going first, it’s far from obvious that the changes Biden is proposing would give the voters there — particularly Black ones — more power over the process. We also can’t say for certain that Black candidates would have a better chance of winning the nomination as a result. And even if Biden’s proposed order is used in 2024, the vote could lead to a convoluted scramble over what happens in 2028, and beyond. That’s primarily because the calendar approved in the coming months may not necessarily hold beyond for long. According to Politico, DNC members have privately noted that the review process is already in place to reconsider the 2028 lineup.

Ultimately, the impact of Biden’s proposal for Black voters only depends in part on what happens with South Carolina — the real question is whether additional diverse states get added to the initial round. If that doesn’t happen, then Biden is rewarding a subset of Black voters who support candidates like him, and it’s not even clear how much of a reward that will be.

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  1. He ended up with the vice presidential nomination that year.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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