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 Finally just eighteen hours before the polls opened, state Democratic chair Joe Irwin cried uncle and rescinded the oath.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.