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The ‘Palmetto Promise’: South Carolina will decide the race

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With one caucus and one primary in the books, the 2020 race for the White House is off and running and, so far, it hasn’t disappointed. It has proved to be nothing short of a battle for who we are as Democrats, with some of the best, brightest and most consequential candidates of my political lifetime on display. 

I also want to congratulate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) for their strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. That was big — and I don’t want to diminish their accomplishments in any way.

That said, everyone should take a deep breath.

To win the nomination on the first ballot, a candidate needs 1,991 delegates and, so far, only 65 delegates have been awarded. So, let’s not give the premature benediction to anything or anyone until the most influential constituencies have their say — starting with South Carolina’s voters.

Let’s be honest: Winning in Iowa and New Hampshire is a big deal and momentum is real, but South Carolina is coming and people there could give two flying kites about how other states voted.

African American voters are the political nerve center for the Democratic Party. They — or we — will decide our next nominee and have a dominant voice in who becomes the next leader of the free world.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until my southern voice gives out: The battleground and center of political gravity, the political filling station and the right of passage for anyone who hopes to be our Democratic nominee and the next president of the United States, is South Carolina.

Learn it. Remember it. Count on it.

And it’s not just because the Palmetto State is an early testing ground and the first contest with a large minority voting population. Sure, that’s part of it — arguably even a big part.

But the most lasting impact is that a candidate who is successful in South Carolina can translate that single victory into repeated victories down the primary calendar. That’s because voting demographics in South Carolina’s Democratic primary (60 percent African American and 55 percent women) closely mirror many of the states that follow.

As a result, a successful campaign in South Carolina becomes a model that can be repeated again and again and again. The strategy to target, engage and turn out voters in South Carolina is transferable to almost every state that comes after, particularly if it is a high-tech and high-touch strategy because, as I have said on many occasions, it takes two to make the thing go right.

To that end, let me also congratulate the campaigns (at least most of them) on making a point of hiring local staff. Almost every campaign has reached into South Carolina’s deep pool of political talent, particularly at the grassroots level, putting many locals to work and it shows. Combining that talent with a targeted messaging strategy and ground game is a recipe for success.

That was the secret ingredient in Barack Obama’s campaign, it was the key to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary success. It’s a big part of the strong South Carolina efforts we’re seeing right now.

The campaigns of Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden, in particular, have taken that lesson to heart. They’ve built large, locally-based networks throughout the Palmetto State’s African American community. Biden was in Columbia on Tuesday night instead of New Hampshire, and Sanders has 900 volunteer canvass shifts scheduled across the state this weekend. That ain’t nothing.

Money is great. Ad-buys are important and national momentum drives narrative. There’s no doubt about it. But personal attention and boots on the ground get the job done.

There are only two things I am superstitious about: politics and college football. While they say you shouldn’t make promises in politics, I’ve never been one to color inside the lines, so I will make this one promise. Call it the “Palmetto Promise.”

On election night, Feb. 29, 2020, whoever wins the South Carolina Democratic primary will have the needed momentum to launch himself or herself toward our party’s nomination. South Carolina will decide this race — count on it.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, and a CBS News political contributor. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags 2020 South Carolina primary Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Democratic presidential candidates Grassroots Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg

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