SC Democrats plan to seize on Biden-Harris ticket to help boost down-ballot turnout
South Carolina Democrats say they see an opportunity to boost down-ballot voter turnout in November now that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has named U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick.
A Black woman of Indian and Jamaican descent, a graduate of historically black Howard University and the first minority woman of a major party to become a vice presidential nominee, Harris will generate excitement in the state’s Democratic Party base, dominated by Black women, the party says.
But her name on the ticket also could yield higher turnout of supporters for Democratic candidates in down-ballot races, including for U.S. Senate hopeful Jaime Harrison — who also is Black and mounting a historic, competitively funded challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham — and for U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston, a top target of the GOP, experts and Democratic leaders say.
Hoping for turnout similar to what then-candidate Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign inspired, Democratic Party officials and grassroots groups are hoping Harris’ pick could help the state’s Democrats win and keep seats from the top down to the State House.
“Women are going to send a very clear message in November,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “I think it was pretty intuitive of Joe Biden and pretty smart of Joe Biden to pick Kamala Harris. But I think it’s going to excite the base much more than the Republicans can expect. You’re damn right Kamala Harris helps our cause.”
Harris’ name on the ticket could energize voters to make sure they cast ballots in a year when COVID-19 is threatening to make voting difficult or even dangerous, as lawmakers and, potentially, the courts decide whether to expand absentee voting to all voters.
“That’s the biggest question, how will coronavirus impact all of this?” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School, who studies Black voting behavior.
But this year’s tumult also could drive Black voters to cast ballots in higher numbers. The virus has had a disproportional impact on Black Americans. The death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody sparked protests nationally after a video went viral that showed a white police officer kneeling on his neck for several minutes. The nation also recently mourned the death of U.S. Sen. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who fought for equal access to the ballot.
Black voters who sat out in 2016 could seize the moment to be heard at the polls this year, observers say.
“Those disengaged voters, they’re more likely than not to vote for Biden-Harris because of everything happening in the world,” Johnson said. “But how strong is that enthusiasm going to be? Are they willing to get off the sidelines, wait for three hours to vote? How hard are they willing to fight to get their vote counted because of coronavirus and a little bit of voter suppression? Her being named to ticket, it’s huge symbolically. It could get people off the sidelines. Those advantages will only be realized if the ticket or party really invests in mobilizing voters.”
‘THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’
For Democrats who watched the S.C. Democratic presidential primary play out, Harris made sense, starting with her politics, they said.
“She’s very much in the mainstream liberal part of the party but not the far left,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University. “She’s not in any stretch the most liberal member in the Senate, but not going to be considered a moderate.”
Two years ago, the U.S. senator from California made her first introduction to South Carolina, helping to drive Democratic voters to cast ballots in the 2018 midterm elections while also fueling speculation of her own run.
“In terms of of Black turnout, Harris was the best selection Biden could’ve made,” Johnson said. “When you look at the party nominee, you want to make sure the vice president is experienced and ready for the job on Day One. She presents that by virtue of her being in the Senate, also a known public figure during the confirmation hearings. And she’s smart. Then she ran for president and she got the name recognition.”
Other potential choices — Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, for example — didn’t have the governing piece, Johnson said.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida didn’t have the name recognition. And former U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California are not as well-known outside of political circles, Johnson said.
Kamala Harris, on the other hand, has been through South Carolina a lot, Vinson said.
And before her primary exit, she built one of the largest campaign ground games in the state that included a network of her sorority sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the country’s oldest Black sorority.
“Her appearances in South Carolina went quite well,” Vinson said. “She brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Folks who are likely to vote Democratic have that positive image of her.”
Harris’ campaign was why state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, chose not to endorse anyone ahead of South Carolina’s pivotal primary, which Biden won.
But McLeod did have private meetings with both candidates during their campaigns. Biden, McLeod said, asked for her endorsement but she said she was reluctant to say yes because she wanted to get to know Harris first.
“In my lifetime, I had not had an opportunity to support a woman of color, a Black woman who was also at the time running for president. I was torn,” McLeod said. “Now, I have the best of both worlds.”
HOW MUCH WILL HARRIS ENERGIZE VOTERS?
Supporters of Jaime Harrison — raising record-breaking amounts of cash and on Republican Graham’s heels in terms of money and recent polling — say Harris’ name on the ticket could significantly boost Harrison’s attempt to unseat the longtime incumbent by driving out voters.
In South Carolina, Harris “rallied a ton of women, she had women within her campaign,” said town of Johnston Mayor Terrence Culbreath, 37, who worked on then presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s S.C. primary campaign. “The groundwork has already been done. They can pick that mantle back up. I don’t think it’ll be hard for them to re-energize the base created here, but also re-energize the people who didn’t give her a fair shot during the primary.”
In South Carolina, turnout among non-white voters has been higher in 2008 and 2012, years that Obama was running for president, than in 2004 and 2016 when each of the major parties’ nominees were white. Minority voters also tend to favor Democrats overwhelmingly, illustrated most recently in the 2016 presidential election when Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump. In that race, Black voters favored Clinton over Trump more than any other demographic, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
In the 2008 and 2012 general elections, 76.24% and 67.65% of non-white voters, respectively, turned out to vote. In 2004, when John Kerry was at the top of the ticket, only 65.78% of non-white voters turned out. In 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, 62% of non-white voters cast ballots in South Carolina.
Non-white voters also made up a greater proportion of South Carolina’s total electorate in 2008 and 2012 — around 31% of total S.C. voters in the general election — compared to 27% and 28% in 2004 and 2016, respectively.
The question remains whether Harris will be able to drive out younger voters who may be on the fence about Biden’s age or Harris’ background as a prosecutor and attorney general in California.
“They don’t like politicians who are too blow-dried and too scripted and just seem to be pandering or spouting lines that somebody told them would poll well,” Vinson said of young voters, adding that Harris may appeal to younger voters.
“She’s the cool aunt. I know that’s a Saturday Night Live joke, but it’s true,” Vinson added. “She doesn’t come across as a stodgy candidate.”
There’s no question that Harris has energized voters who see themselves reflected in her.
Take Bernice Scott, the former longtime Richland County councilwoman. The founder of the Reckoning Crew, a grassroots group made up of mostly Black women, wasted no time after the state’s Democratic presidential primary in February to turn her efforts toward getting people to register to vote.
“We never did stop,” Scott, 75, told The State Friday. “This is not a sprint. This is a long race.”
With the backbone help of the South Carolina Democratic Party, it’s groups like the Reckoning Crew that Scott says will be key to ensuring the party’s main voting bloc — women, and particularly Black women — votes in November with the primary focus being the whole ticket.
“People are really excited, and not just because she’s a Black woman but she is a woman of character,” said Scott.
Scott said she would have voted for Biden had he been named “Timbuktu.”
“But Biden selecting her, I’m telling you I was so excited,” Scott said. “I feel excitement. It’s hope.”
It’s more than just hope, but also who Harris represents, say some of the senator’s strongest backers.
“It matters that we, and those that are younger than us, but who have the ability to vote, it matters that we can see somebody who looks like us and is fighting for us and understands the challenges that we face,” state Sen. McLeod said. “All of that matters.”
SC VOTER TURNOUT IN PRESIDENTIAL CYCLES
In South Carolina, the proportion of non-white registered voters who came to the polls when former President Barack Obama was on the ballot was higher than presidential election years he was not. Non-white voters also made up a larger proportion of all voters casting ballots in the Obama contests compared to 2004 and 2016.
Percentage of non-white registered voters who cast a ballot in the presidential election:
▪ 2004: 65.78%
▪ 2008: 76.24%
▪ 2012: 67.65%
▪ 2016: 62.01%
Total number non-white voters who cast a ballot in the General Election:
▪ 2004: 433,732 out of 659,366 registered non-white voters
▪ 2008: 590,046 out of 773,925 registered non-white voters
▪ 2012: 608,323 out of 899,177 registered non-white voters
▪ 2016: 602,548 out of 971,681 registered non-white voters
Proportion of the total South Carolina general election voters that were non-white:
▪ 2004: 26.59%
▪ 2008: 30.57%
▪ 2012: 31.41%
▪ 2016: 28.24%
SOURCE: SC ELECTION COMMISSION
CORRECTION: This month, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris became the first minority woman of a major party to become a vice presidential nominee. A previous version of this article, which mentioned the historic nature of her candidacy, was not specific to major parties. We regret the error.