As SC Primary Approaches, Black Vote Poised to Play Decisive Role

February 21, 2020 by Dan McCue
The Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, S.C. on Saturday, February 22, just before the start of an environmental justice town hall featuring Martin Luther King III, former Flint Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver and others. (Photo by Dan McCue)

The arrival of the bus made all heads turn. Mostly blue, its side was dominated by the name “Biden” in large red and white letters, and a slogan, declaring it was dispatched to wage a “Battle for the Soul of the Nation.”

As the bus pulled to a stop outside the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, Dr. Jill Biden, the former vice president’s wife and surrogate, was preparing to deliver a speech to a crowd of educators and other interested residents assembled inside the brick and white steepled church.

In a way, the setting couldn’t have been more humble. The church is located just outside the city of Charleston on a two-lane road dotted with small warehouses and industrial type businesses, and dominated by utility lines.

But it served to illustrate the important role churches — most of them in African-American communities — are playing in the run-up to the state’s Feb. 9 primary.

“It’s a tradition,” said the political consultant, Carey Crantford, Friday morning.

“Across the country, but particularly here in the South, African-American churches have always been havens for the discussion of both societal and Christian issues,” he said. “Historically, the church has always been a gathering point in the community and it still functions that way.

“And frankly, it’s one of the few places where a politician, black or white, can go to address a gathered community on specific days and specific times and know that they are interested in the topics they have to discuss.”

Though there isn’t a Republican primary in South Carolina in 2020, Democrats aren’t alone in their interest in cultivating church members this year.

One of the features of the current S.C. GOP’s website is a page devoted to “Civic Sundays,” a targeted voter registration effort conducted in churches all across the state. 

“Studies have shown that conservative faith-based voters are just as bad as everyone else when it comes to being registered to vote and actually voting on Election Day,” the Republican website says.

To make the registration drive a success, party members are told, “it is vital that your church participate and ensure that all of its members are registered to vote.”

Two-Thirds of South Carolina Voters Attend Church Regularly

David Woodard, a recently retired political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University, has written on southern politics for 20 years and also engaged in extensive political polling throughout his career.

He said that over the years polling has shown that about two-thirds of registered voters in the state, black and white, say they “attend church at least two times a month.”

He also noted that when it comes to presidential primaries, the African-American vote in South Carolina  is usually about 60% and heavily female.

“And while I believe pastors play a large role in South Carolina politics, I don’t think that role is especially overt,” Woodward said.

“By that I mean, the discussion of politics may be more in the hallways and classrooms, than in the pulpit,” he said. “Some churches will welcome candidates and introduce them to the audience from the podium, but that is not a usual occurrence.

“The truth is, the role of the black church is nothing like it once was. They play a role, but they are not usually on the first-line of political life,” he continued. “Today, the African-American vote in the state is well-organized by local workers, contacts in various social and community agencies and in other ways.”

Woodward said the same line of demarcation exists in the white churches of South Carolina.

“Baptist pastors will speak, and did this year, on the issue of abortion, and we have a rich history of Christian leaders playing a role in organizing on behalf of some candidates, but again, it’s not usually a church-sponsored event.

“For instance, the once influential Christian Coalition was not in the church narthex, but in the parking lot outside. And issues like abortion, gay rights and transgender issues are often addressed through conservative organizations (think Tea Party) that may attract members, but not at a church,” he said.

Cranford, whom Ballotpedia has identified as one of the top influencers in the state, said while he’s no sociologist, he thinks there’s a distinction to be drawn between how black and white churches embrace their role in contemporary elections.

“Many of the traditions of the black church and the community when it comes to politics go way back to the civil rights movement,” he said. “It’s always played a part in things like voter registration and providing transportation to the polls. There’s always been a direct connection between rights and involvement. In that sense, participation in elections could be seen as part of the mission of the church.”

Illustrating that, the Rev. Al Sharpton is hosting a ministers’ breakfast in North Charleston the morning after the Democratic debate next week. All of the presidential candidates have been invited to attend, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn will be given an award by Sharpton’s National Action Network.

The ostensible reason for the breakfast, which is being held at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, is to “refocus on the work of the civil rights community … with a specific focus on mobilizing black churches ahead of the 2020 elections.”

“The role of the white church in South Carolina politics is a bit more complicated and in part that’s because it seems to have become much more active more recently,” Cranford said.

He pointed to the engagement beginning with the issue of abortion and particularly the U.S. Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision in 1973.

“That’s when you started to see conservative groups and movements and these large churches coming together, and the advent of political activity and political discussion in white churches,” he said.

“The big, staple religions, the main street churches, are still a bit more traditional, but even there you see political issues like gay rights and marriage and abortion end up in Sunday sermons,” he said. “These churches may not have the social history their black counterparts have in terms of connecting with parishioners’ social or political life, but they’ve become forums where political issues are being discussed and voters are being mobilized.”

Role Confined by Concerns Over Tax-Exempt Status

Bruce Ransom, a Clemson political science professor and co-director of the university’s political poll, said a big factor influencing how involved churches become in elections is concern for preserving their tax-exempt status.

Ransom, who lived in New Jersey for 15 years before settling in South Carolina, says he saw the same phenomena there and said these concerns have created friction between pastors from time to time.

“So it comes down to, say, allowing a campaign to use the church basement, or inviting the candidates to come and speak on Sunday. It comes down to the Minister urging you to do your civic duty and voting … but it stops short of taking a position on who to vote for,” he said.

This comports with another page on the South Carolina Republican Party website, one which outlines what churches can and cannot do in politics.

According to the state GOP, a church can conduct non-partisan voter registration drives; conduct non-partisan voter identification drives; conduct “get-out-the-vote” drives, encouraging members to vote; conduct petition drives regarding legislation or other issues; distribute non-partisan voter education information; educate church members on legislative and political matters; and discuss doctrine as it applies to politics, legislative matters or candidate positions.

Pastors, the party goes on to say, can introduce political candidates and allow them to address the congregation in their capacity as candidates as long as all candidates seeking the same office are given an equal opportunity to participate, and the church does not express support or opposition for any particular candidate(s); host candidate forums where all candidates are invited and allowed to speak; and even rent church member contact lists.

What churches can’t do is endorse or campaign for candidates for elected office in the name of the church; contribute money or make “in kind” contributions, (such as resources or services), to a candidate, political party or political action committee; distribute materials that endorse a particular candidate or political party; allow candidates to solicit funds from the congregation (from the pulpit); or create a church political committee that would do any of the above.

So Where Does This Leave Us A Week From The Primary?

Even assuming black churches don’t play the oversized role they might have played in past elections, the closeness of the Democratic race in South Carolina suggests their efforts and their congregations could be decisive.

Ransom said the latest polling he’s seen show Biden, once the overwhelming favorite among the state’s black voters, has dropped significantly in the state and is now tied with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Biden is still the candidate to beat here, but the race has gotten tighter, with some of the black vote going over to Sanders and another sizable portion going to Tom Steyer, who has been very aggressively courting the black vote in the state,” he said.

Steyer’s efforts haven’t been without controversy. In fact, he was openly accused by a prominent Democrat in the state — state Sen. Dick Harpootlian — of trying to buy the black vote, in part by paying tens of thousands of dollars to the leader of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus (and a one-time Binden supporter) to be his senior campaign advisor.

The controversy over Steyer’s strategy picked up steam last week after the pastor of the Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, S.C., told congregants that his church was applying for a grant from Steyer’s foundation.

Steyer has vociferously denied the charges. Ransom also dismissed the controversy.

“What’s the old saying, ‘Money is the mother’s milk of politics’? I mean, volunteers are important, but you have to have a good paid staff to prevail in a primary. And it’s good to be able to run ads — and all of the leading  candidates are running advertisements in South Carolina targeting the African-American community in particular.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton leaned heavily on her connections with the black community and particularly, the black church, to trounce Sanders, 272,379 votes to 96,498.

This time both Ransom and Crantford expect him to do better though both say Biden could still claim victory in the end.

Like Hillary Clinton, he’s still the best known candidate in the community and is still revered for being President Barack Obama’s vice president.

That Sanders appears to be running neck and neck with Biden is the result of a couple of factors, both men said.

The first is that he’s simply much better known to the black community in South Carolina in 2020 than he was in 2016.

At the same time, Cranford said, Sanders is more familiar with the community. “In 2016 he came in here not understanding the culture of politics in the state and basically walked right into the trap Clinton had laid for him — including the use of her husband, who has an effective presence here.”

Ransom said Sanders simply has a much better organization than he had the last time around, and that he’s had “people on the ground,” many of whom are African-Americans and have been involved in other campaigns in the state.

“Four years ago, Bernie Sanders didn’t do well at all with the African-American community, and the polls suggest he’s closed the gap. That said, in the last six to eight weeks, Steyer has come out of nowhere. Some polls even have him in second place right now in terms of black voter support,” he said.

“What that shows you is that  the African-American vote in South Carolina is not monolithic. There are fractures there, and they’re beginning to show,” he concluded.

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