South Carolina emerges as must-win state for 2020 Dems

Democratic presidential hopefuls are barnstorming South Carolina, lured by a condensed primary schedule and diverse electorate that will be crucial to securing their party’s nomination in 2020.

The Palmetto State is poised to be among the most important early contests of 2020. Not only is the primary there the first in the South, but the first where black voters will make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, setting the state up as a proving ground of the candidates’ ability to court a key voting bloc.

Adding to the crucial nature of South Carolina’s nominating contest is California’s 2017 decision to push up the date of its 2020 primaries from June to March 3, when voters in eight other states will head to the polls for Super Tuesday.

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“People like to be with winners,” said Jaime Harrison, an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee who’s weighing a challenge to Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US Republicans wary of US action on Iran MORE (R-S.C.) in 2020.

“The person that wins South Carolina takes a ton of momentum going into Super Tuesday.”

Over the weekend, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Trump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions MORE (D-N.Y.) made her first trip to South Carolina since announcing her presidential campaign. Not far behind her was Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerMark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place MORE (D-N.J.), who spent Sunday and Monday in the Palmetto State.

Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs MORE (D-Mass.) are set to make a new round of trips to South Carolina in the coming days after visits in January.

Trav Robertson, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that a victory in the state’s primary will hinge on long-term organizing similar to former President Obama’s expansive field operation in the state in 2008.

“I’m looking to see who is going to recreate the field organization from 2008,” Robertson said. “Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama meets with Greta Thunberg: 'One of our planet's greatest advocates' Trump: Cokie Roberts 'never treated me nicely' but 'was a professional' Obama, Bush among those paying tribute to Cokie Roberts: 'A trailblazing figure' MORE came into South Carolina knowing that they might be the underdog … and he calculated what he thought the turnout was going to be and created his own electorate.”

South Carolina was a saving grace for Obama’s first bid for the White House. He won a resounding victory there after back-to-back losses to then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE (D-N.Y.) in New Hampshire and Nevada, giving his campaign a shot in the arm ahead of Super Tuesday.

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“There was such a grass-roots operation [in Obama’s 2008 campaign],” Harrison said. “It was really the first time you saw that type of operation take place.”

While the primary schedule isn’t finalized yet, the South Carolina contest is tentatively set for Feb. 29, 2020, a week after the Nevada caucuses are expected to take place and just days before Super Tuesday.

Already, candidates are hiring aides and advisers with deep South Carolina experience.

Earlier this month, for example, Booker brought on Clay Middleton, a former state director for Clinton’s 2016 bid and political director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, as a senior political adviser and Christale Spain, the former South Carolina political outreach director for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, as his state director.

Likewise, Harris hired Jalisa Washington-Price, the former South Carolina political director for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, to head up her operation in the state.

The 2020 primary contest will also be the first to feature at least two high-profile black candidates, Booker and Harris. Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said that alone could carry weight in South Carolina, where African-Americans made up 61 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016.

Last month, just days before he announced his candidacy for president, Booker traveled to Columbia, the state’s capital, to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally.

Also in January, Harris attended a gala hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest black sorority, in Columbia.

The California Democrat is herself a member of the sorority, which boasts nearly 300,000 members worldwide who could give Harris an early boost among some black female voters, another crucial voting bloc for Democrats.

Securing support among South Carolina’s black voters is likely to be a crucial test for both Booker and Harris, Bannon said.

“You have two candidates here – Harris and Booker – that may have some real appeal to black voters,” Bannon said. “And it seems to me that only one of them can make it out of South Carolina.”

Harrison cautioned against “taking anything for granted” when it comes to courting black voters in the state.

In 2007, public polls initially showed Clinton leading Obama among African-Americans in South Carolina. It was only after an intense organizing effort that Obama came back to win roughly 80 percent of the black vote in the state’s primaries.

“People like both [Harris and Booker] and they’ve done well in terms of their outreach efforts. But you can’t just rest on your laurels there,” Harrison said. “At the end of the day, you have to demonstrate that you’re the best candidate for the African-American community.”

Several other 2020 hopefuls have already made a push to appeal to black voters in South Carolina.

Sanders, who is considering a White House bid but has not announced a decision yet, traveled to South Carolina along with Booker to speak at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Columbia.

And Warren has made a point in stump speeches to decry the economic barriers faced by African-Americans, including during a campaign event in South Carolina last month.

“Why has the path gotten so rocky for so many people who work hard?” Warren said. “And why is it so much rockier for African-Americans?”

With a dozen Democrats already in the race and potential campaign announcements from the likes of Sanders and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE, the candidate visits to South Carolina are only likely to become more frequent.

“You’re going to see a lot of candidates come through South Carolina and the voters here are going to go on a lot of dates with the candidates,” Robertson said. “But none of them need to get married on the first date.”