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The Rationale Behind South Carolina Becoming the First Dem Primary

The final decision on whether the Palmetto State will leapfrog ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada is expected in the new year.
December 12, 2022
The Rationale Behind South Carolina Becoming the First Dem Primary
People line up to cast their in-person absentee ballots at Seacoast Church West Ashley on October 30, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

If President Joe Biden gets his way, the Democrats’ presidential primary schedule is about to undergo a major shakeup. Biden has proposed making the South Carolina primary the first in the country, supplanting the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws arm approved the change on Dec. 2, and the question will be put before the full DNC when it meets in February. If approved, South Carolina would be followed by New Hampshire and Nevada the following week, with Michigan and Georgia up next.

Biden’s preference for South Carolina going first is in large part an expression of gratitude to the state that rescued his presidential campaign after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the sales pitch is that the early primary states need to be more racially diverse to better reflect the demographics of Democratic voters. Most Democrats seems to be onboard with rethinking the order of the states, especially following the disastrous Iowa caucuses in 2020. There is less enthusiasm, however, for making South Carolina first.

Let’s dig into this. First things first: According to a Pew Research analysis of validated 2020 voters, 85 percent of the people who voted for Donald Trump were white while that was the case for just 61 percent of Biden’s voters. Meanwhile, 30 percent of Biden’s voters were black or Hispanic compared to 10 percent of Trump’s voters. Given this, Iowa and New Hampshire—two of the whitest states in the country at 85 and 88 percent, respectively—make sense for the first Republican primary states in a way that they just don’t for Democrats. The voters Democrats need most to win the White House are basically boxed out of those all-important early primaries where campaigns are often made or broken.

A better way to get a feel for whom Democratic voters want as their nominee is to present the question to a better representative sample of those voters. For the last thirty years, the Democratic presidential candidate who won black voters ultimately won the party nomination. In particular, the preference of black Southern voters, who tend to be older and more pragmatic in their voting choices, has proven prescient. In the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary, exit polls showed that 56 percent of the voters were black and Biden won nearly two-thirds of them on the way to victory. In Nevada, where, according to the entrance polls, 17 percent of the caucus-goers were Hispanic and 11 percent were black, Biden finished a distant second to Bernie Sanders. Put it another way: In Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, before people of color weighed in in significant numbers, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren were top-three finishers; as soon as the electorate diversified, their campaigns withered and were soon suspended. Changing up the initial states could quicken the identification of the nominee, which could help in preparing for the general election.

But such an approach is not foolproof. If this proposed state order had been in place in 2008, it is quite possible that Barack Obama may have lost the nomination. Going into the primaries, Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton by 14 points in South Carolina as many black voters—their pragmatism insisting that the most viable candidate should get their support—were unwilling to take a chance on the newcomer, even if he was black and charismatic. But when Obama pulled out a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, showcasing to those black voters that he could win over white voters and thus was eminently viable as a nominee, South Carolina swung heavily in his favor—Obama went on to win black voters there by 60 points. Without that Iowa victory in his back pocket, coupled with a narrow second-place finish in New Hampshire, he may not have convinced enough black voters to win South Carolina, which might’ve doomed his chances. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but for minority candidates to win the White House (or Senate, governor, and other statewide elections), they must win white voters. Demonstrating the ability to do so is absolutely essential.

There are those who think the proposed changes to the primary calendar are misguided. Some observers think starting with South Carolina is a mistake because Democratic presidential nominees aren’t competitive there. (A Democratic presidential candidate has not won South Carolina in the general election since Jimmy Carter in 1976.) New Hampshire and Iowa are particularly peeved at the prospect of missing out on the benefits that come with being the first primary states, not the least of which are the enormous amounts of political spending and prolonged media attention. And the progressive wing of the party may resent having to win in more moderate Southern and Midwestern states early on.

Democrats will need to determine which of the following gives them the best chance to identify the nominee who can win the White House: Southern black voters who have a keen sense of a candidate’s national viability; battleground state voters; states where the Democratic primary electorate most resembles the national electorate that remains three-quarters white and 20 percent black and Hispanic; or states that lean ideologically more to the left or tack towards the center.

The decision isn’t just a matter of which internal party interests win out but a determination of which sorts of candidates have the inside track to win the nomination. For this reason, the DNC’s vote in February will be the latest and best indication of the preferences of the party’s elites and its near-term future.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.