The South Carolina Democratic primary will be decided by black women
As Democratic primaries continue to unfold, the nominating process moves to a battleground with a much larger African American population. Black people comprise nearly 60 percent of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, making it an important stop along the campaign trail for candidates seeking to gauge – and court – the support of black voters.
It remains to be seen whether this change in demographics will make the issues and concerns of African Americans more central to the campaign. But one thing is clear: the candidate who wins the Palmetto State will be the one that does the best job of recruiting black women.
As the South Carolina primary approaches, most political observers view Joe Biden as the preferred candidate among black voters in the state. After all, the former vice president still benefits from his association to the former president.
But the “firewall” the Biden campaign established in South Carolina is being breached. New polls show that Biden’s lead is shrinking in the state. At the same time, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer are gaining momentum.
Just two days before the Iowa caucus, Mattie Thomas, the co-chair of the Black Women’s Caucus of South Carolina, endorsed Steyer. Thomas, who said the endorsement was personal and not on the group’s behalf, mentioned that her decision to back Steyer stemmed from their desire to have their interests represented: “This is a crucial election and black women need a candidate who’s going to champion our policies.” Thomas added that Steyer’s appeal stemmed from his stances on issues ranging from “housing to reproductive rights and entrepreneurship.”
The businessman from New York and ardent Trump critic also got an endorsement from Edith Childs, a member of Greenwood’s city council who coined a phrase that became one of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans: “Fired Up, Ready To Go!”
These developments have helped propel Steyer to the front of the pack. So how is Steyer able to compete so effectively for black women’s backing?
The easy answer is that he made black female voters a major focus. Unlike most other candidates who put in less effort in the state, Steyer’s campaign spent considerable time and money communicating to African American voters and leaders about its commitment to a racially progressive and economically-redistributive political agenda.
Steyer’s investment in a strong “ground game” among black communities is unfortunately novel, though it shouldn’t be. African American women have been one of the most reliable and underappreciated voting blocs for decades, and the indisputable backbone of the Democratic Party. However, and despite the warning that the party should not take them for granted, black women are still fighting for the attention they rightfully deserve.
The more complicated answer is that Biden needs to compete so hard in South Carolina because he might be less appealing than previously thought. For many black voters, the decision to back a Democratic candidate in 2020 is being made with the head and not with the heart: other, more demographically diverse candidates have left the field, and black Democrats must choose from the remaining options. Biden’s electability (i.e., his ability to appeal to working-class white voters) and his loyalty to the Obama legacy make him the practical choice. However, there are genuine concerns about Biden’s readiness (or willingness) to address the needs of communities of color. And in today’s hyper-partisan and highly-polarized climate, many black people are throwing in their lot with a candidate they believe can defeat Trump while simultaneously doing the least amount of damage to their communities.
Will support from this important voting bloc propel Steyer or Biden to victory? As someone who has studied political participation among African Americans for over a decade, I know to #followblackwomen. Beyond their status as the base of the base of the Democratic Party, they should also be the party’s face: turnout rates are higher among black women than any other demographic group, and no group votes more consistently Democratic.
Put simply, what black women do profoundly shapes the party’s outcomes. The pre-primary polling and recent endorsements suggest black women in South Carolina have identified something in Steyer, it’s time the rest of the Democratic Party starts paying attention to him too.
Ray Block Jr. is Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Penn State University. He is co-author of “Losing Power: Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics.”
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