Note: This story has been amended to remove a reference to Michael Bloomberg setting up operations in South Carolina. Bloomberg is not on the South Carolina ballot.
Democrats are united on one idea. They want to unseat President Donald Trump. But past that, and even with the South Carolina Democratic Primary right around the corner, likely progressive voters are in a street fight between their ideals and who they think stands the best chance of accomplishing their main objective.
When voters hit the polls on February 29, it will be one day after a debate in Charleston. And that could actually help make up some minds among Democrats looking to find their candidate.
“I’m still undecided,” says D’Amontae Berland. At 24, he likes the energy of Pete Buttigieg. He also likes the passion of Elizabeth Warren. And yet, Berland says he’s leaning towards voting for Joe Biden because he might be the most electable.
Amy Hayes, onetime chair of the York County Democratic Party, isn’t quite so sure either. Her favorite candidates (in what was at one point a 25-hore race) are no longer in it.
“I liked Kamala Harris,” Hayes says. “Corey Booker too.”
In the absence of these choices, Hayes says she’s still trying to find the right balance between what she wants a presidential contender to bring and who she thinks would be most likely to win in November.
Her thought process reveals a characteristic Democrats are not happy to have to deal with. They know who they’re against, but not so much who they’re for. And when it comes to who she’s against, it’s not just Trump.
The Electability Conundrum
“Anyone who knows me knows I don’t want Bernie Sanders,” Hayes says.
She’s not alone. Though Sanders is polling well, and though he leads the candidates in delegates collected following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, he does give some Democrats pause.
“While some of his ideas are very interesting,” says voter Alan Jackson, “They’re also very revolutionary.”
In other words, Sanders’ stance on issues like Medicare coverage and free college are the kinds of stances that “push people out of their comfort zone,” Jackson says. And by “people” he means people in the political middle; moderates and undecideds, who might be scared off by a far-left position from someone who openly calls himself a Democratic Socialist.
Democrat Susan Demchak equally worries that voters not already aligned with Sanders would see him as the standard bearer for the entire slate of Democratic candidates come November, and out of fear, vote straight-ticket Republican without considering what downballot candidates (specifically Jamie Harrison, who’s running against Republican Lindsey Graham for South Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat this year) might have to offer.
Hanging over voters’ heads is the specter of Republicans – who don’t have a primary of their own this year – urging their own partymates to vote for Sanders in the primary. South Carolina does not require voters to declare a party, so anyone registered to vote can vote in any party’s primary.
All that said, these voters, and others leery that Sanders might not be able to beat Trump, say they will absolutely vote for him if he’s the candidate.
“I will canvass for him,” Demchak says.
The Representation Factor
Democrats I spoke with in Rock Hill say they are entirely unconcerned with the results of primary elections so far. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar came out ahead of the rest of the pack, and that includes the candidate most people expect to either win or place a strong second here, Joe Biden.
Polls for where South Carolina voters stand on each candidate are notably few; the latest reliable polls generally being a few months old. And if one were to only go by those, one would find Biden out to a pretty comfortable lead in the state.
Biden himself has shrugged off fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, to concentrate on his longstanding popularity among South Carolina’s most treasured electoral bloc for Democrats – African-American voters.
Where the candidates stand in this state depends a lot on where they stand among black voters. In that regard, Biden, whose history of being connected in South Carolina pairs well with his cachet of having served as Barack Obama’s second-in-command, remains strong.
Biden was a longstanding favorite nationally and in South Carolina since entering the race last year. In the past month, his place has slipped, even in Nevada – considered to be the first temperature-taking of a more diverse population than largely white Iowa and New Hampshire. Even so, with support for a Biden candidacy ebbing more broadly, the former vice president remains the odds-on favorite in South Carolina.
The half-dozen Rock Hill Democrats I spoke with are almost entirely a combination of undecided or unwilling to share who they plan to vote for. But even those who are considering Biden or hearing out Michael Bloomberg – both deep into their 70s – say the younger end of the candidate spectrum appeals greatly.
Voter Missy Jackson, Alan’s wife, says she’s voting for Pete Buttigieg. She likes his youthfulness and optimism, two things the group says are sorely needed for a healthy Democratic party in the future.
But the real future, says voter Yolanda Gordon, is in the children of people voting right now. She says of those not yet of age to vote, “they’re listening.” And that it’s up to voters this round to teach them how to interpret what they’re seeing.
“Follow policy, not attack ads,” Gordon says. “Don’t get emotionally invested.”
And maybe the most fitting advice for voters of tomorrow, she says, is to ask this question:
“Who is going to be the adult in the room?”