Columbia, South Carolina

It was not any candidate who most roiled voters in the final days of the Palmetto State’s Democratic primary. Instead it was the Democratic Party itself–specifically, a loyalty oath party officials decided to exact at the polling-place door.

South Carolina’s primaries are open regardless of affiliation, but under state law the parties themselves administer the polling places. South Carolina Democratic leaders–worried, they claimed, about GOP manipulation–decided to require every voter to sign a card swearing that “I consider myself to be a Democrat.” Independent voters went wild. So did African-Americans, who remember well the use of segregationist loyalty oaths to keep black voters from the polls. For days, the phones at Democratic headquarters here rang off the hook, even while party leaders–backed up, I have been repeatedly told, by John Kerry’s campaign staff–tried to hold their ground. Finally just eighteen hours before the polls opened, state Democratic chair Joe Irwin cried uncle and rescinded the oath.

The Democrats’ abortive loyalty oath is not just a matter of South Carolina political arcana. If primary politics in the Palmetto State is any indication, the greatest threat to hopes of defeating President Bush remains Democratic business as usual. And nowhere do conventional Democratic wisdom and conventional Democratic tactics face as serious a challenge as in states like South Carolina. In Iowa and New Hampshire the candidates talked about the South constantly–nearly always with determinist certainty and without any nuance. Howard Dean made his famous comment about guys with Confederate flags and pickups. Wesley Clark would run down his Arkansas-military-Jewish-Baptist pedigree like a demographic litmus test. In New Hampshire I saw John Edwards screw up his face and perform a kind of minstrelsy, exaggerating his accent for the Yankee crowd: “Ah kin win th’ South ’cause ah tawk lahk this.”

But what the candidates encountered here in South Carolina was an increasingly fragmented picture of what “The South” means for politics. Even John Edwards found his secure favorite-son strategy on uncertain ground.

Start with African-Americans. Whenever the candidates talk about “The South” they are speaking, barely euphemistically, about white voters. But in South Carolina, blacks are one-third of the electorate and nearly half of the Democratic primary vote. Their participation in presidential elections has been shrinking along with all other constituencies, and the truth is that none of this year’s candidates aroused completely unalloyed enthusiasm. In the campaign’s final week churches filled for Sharpton, Edwards, Dean and Kerry, and ministers lined up behind candidates, but black voters played their cards close. Up until election day, more than 20 percent of Democrats described themselves as undecided, and behind the scenes every campaign knew that most of that 20 percent were African-Americans. “Black voters here are used to being courted by candidates and abandoned,” was how Quincy Gambel, Dean’s coordinator in Greenville, described it. A law student from Atlanta, he was struck by how even voters who had given money to candidates would reply to phone-bank queries with “Who I vote for is none of your business.” In a year when marginal victories may be everything, Democrats can’t afford a black South that is merely resigned and defensive. “The South” needs to be recoded as black, and it’s even possible to argue–as Representative Jesse Jackson and Frank Watkins did last year in their book A More Perfect Union–that an effective black vice-presidential nominee with a strong economic message–like Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia–could do as much as any white Southerner on the ticket to swing Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and other crucial states.

Conventional political definitions of the South are breaking apart in other ways. In 2000 the area South Carolinians call Upcountry–Greenville, Spartanburg and other counties in the Blue Ridge foothills–were solid Bush territory. In many ways Upcountry is still Old South–this year the Greenville County Council defied black protest marchers and voted down a Martin Luther King holiday. But economically, the region is devastated. In downtown Spartanburg on a weekday afternoon, the local pawn shop does more business than the local lunch counter. College kids arriving in town to canvass for Dean and Kerry were taken aback by the number of eviction notices stuck to doorways, in both black neighborhoods and white. Greenville boasts a spanking new arena and business district, but a company like Messer Industries, a manufacturer of mirrors, has laid off half its work force in the past three years. The same is true statewide. South Carolina has the highest unemployment of any Super Tuesday state, and agriculture is screaming: South Carolina peach farming, a $29 billion per year industry, was down 40 percent in 2003 from the year before. John Edwards and Howard Dean both understood this long before Kerry–Edwards in particular hammered the point–but Kerry picked up their themes in his final campaign swing through the state.

Of course much in South Carolina doesn’t change. The state is still relgious–“a day doesn’t go by that one of my volunteers doesn’t get a sermon,” grins Quincy Gambel. It is still loaded with military families and veterans–vets alone are 20 percent of the electorate, growing by thousands of retirees every year–and even with Kerry’s candidacy putting veterans into political play [see Shapiro, “Kerry’s Army,” February 16], how they will vote is anyone’s guess.

Even the most conventionally understood white South Carolina political identity is changing in ways that may defy the sort of conventional determinism that gave us Double-Bubba in 1992 and Gore-Lieberman in 2000. My last afternoon in Greenville I met Ben Ashley, anyone’s archetype of what this year is being called the NASCAR voter. Ashley grew up in Rock Hill, from a family of white farming people who trace themselves back to the earliest South Carolinians. He was career military, retired after thirty years to Greenville because of his family roots and describes himself as “no liberal.” So like a lot of South Carolinians, he is the apolitical demographer’s dream. But there’s more to it. When Ashley decided, after fighting in Vietnam, to get a college degree, it was at Savannah State College, a historically black school where he had been assigned as an ROTC instructor: “I was one of maybe twenty white graduates out of 2,000 in my class.” And in Vietnam he was a Swiftie–crew on the same kind of patrol boat John Kerry commanded. I found him in Kerry’s Greenville boiler room, boasting to the Northern college kids about the latest conversion he’d made on the phone.

What the South Carolina primary really adds up to is the possibility that 2004 will be the year that finally disaggregates the political South defined by Richard Nixon in 1968. That telephone ringing off the hook in South Carolina Democratic headquarters this week was carrying a version of the same message delivered by Howard Dean’s volunteers, by the turnout of unaffiliated caucus-goers of Iowa, by the response here in South Carolina to Edwards’s economic populism. The question is whether presumptive nominee Kerry and the Democratic technocrats will take the necessary risks–or retreat into comfortable tactics, relying only on the most predictable and controllable votes and the most conventional Southern conservative-pandering strategy. Maybe they should sign a pledge. Barring that, South Carolina suggests that the biggest danger to Democratic chances will be John Kerry’s tying up the nomination too soon, leaving the kind of leadership that gave South Carolina its loyalty oath unchallenged.