Why Biden’s Democrats want South Carolina to go first in 2024

Joe Biden Elizabeth Warren
President Joe Biden speaks on the phone while visiting a phone bank at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Boston. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks on a phone at right. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky/AP

Why Biden’s Democrats want South Carolina to go first in 2024

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The Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm has selected South Carolina to lead off its 2024 presidential primaries at President Joe Biden’s urging, but he probably would have preferred they made the change four years earlier.

Biden stumbled out of the gate early in 2020, finishing fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and a very distant second in Nevada, trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) by over 16 points.

Then he won the South Carolina primary by a landslide, regained his front-runner status, and never looked back.

That’s not how the change is being sold, of course. South Carolina is a contest where black voters have a much bigger impact than in Iowa.

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“Just like my administration, the Democratic Party has worked hard to reflect the diversity of America — but our nominating process does not,” Biden wrote in a letter to Democrats ahead of the vote. “For fifty years, the first month of our presidential nominating process has been a treasured part of our democratic process, but it is time to update the process for the 21st century. I am committed to working with the DNC to get this done.”

South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate is about 60% black. Exit polls found black voters accounted for 56% of the 2020 primary turnout and that Biden won 61% of their votes. With just under half the total vote in the seven-way race, he ran nearly 30 points ahead of runner-up Sanders.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) provided Biden with a key endorsement, and some black voters were thought to be rejecting Sanders’s socialism as a general election killer.

Biden’s history in Iowa was less promising. In 2008, he received less than 1% of the vote to finish fifth and dropped out of the race shortly afterward. He took 13.7% in the 2020 final vote but still finished outside the top three.

Iowa’s whiteness, complex voting process, and software glitch delaying the 2020 results for days all caused the state to fall out of favor with Democratic activists. It has also in recent years become less of a battleground state and increasingly favors conservative Republicans.

The full DNC still needs to approve the calendar change made by its Rules and Bylaws Committee before it is finalized.

Changes to the primary calendar do not always have the desired effect. When Southern states began voting together on Super Tuesday in 1988, the most conservative Democrats hoped it would help someone from the region, such as Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) who was then considered a relative centrist, win the nomination. Instead, it primarily benefited Jesse Jackson as he rang up big majorities with black voters in the state.

That cycle was the first time Biden ran for president. Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, won the nomination that year.

After Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, there was a massive shift among black voters toward his candidacy. Older black Democrats were skeptical an African American candidate could win over enough white people to clinch the nomination, so many initially supported Hillary Clinton. Obama then trounced Clinton in South Carolina, winning 55% of the total and an eye-popping 78% of the black vote.

Former President Bill Clinton appeared to dismiss Obama’s South Carolina win. “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign,” he said at the time. “And Obama ran a good campaign here.”

But the more-than-90% white state of Iowa nevertheless played an important role in the election of the first black president. It’s entirely possible that without his first place finish in Iowa he would not have consolidated black support in subsequent primaries.

Obama’s coalition was different from Biden’s, however. He appealed to some of the white voters who liked Sanders in addition to black Democrats. Clinton-aligned Democratic operative Paul Begala famously described Obama’s supporters as “eggheads and African Americans.” Biden was favored by black voters but not the most progressive whites in the party.

When Jackson was running for president in the 1980s, a larger role for black voters in the primary process would have been presumed to produce a more liberal nominee. But in some recent primaries, including South Carolina in 2020, they were a more conservative influence.

Black Democrats are more likely to be religious than their white counterparts. They have rejected “defund the police” candidates in some local elections, including the New York City mayoral contest. These voters helped doom Sanders’s left-wing campaign two years ago.

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Whatever the primary calendar, Biden would be heavily favored to win the 2024 Democratic nomination. No major candidate has declared against him or even appears close to putting together a campaign. Biden’s hand was strengthened by the Democrats’ better-than-expected midterm elections showing, even though exit polls found two-thirds did not want him to seek reelection. Public polls have found the same, including among younger Democrats.

Biden has not made a final decision about whether he will seek a second term. He has said he is inclined to run, especially against former President Donald Trump, if his health holds up, but the 80-year-old incumbent said he would discuss it with his family and announce his intentions next year.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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