Democrats’ Road to the White House in 2024 Starts in South Carolina
Since President Biden announced his preference for South Carolina to be the first Democratic presidential primary state, many have put in their two cents on the matter. As the South Carolina state director for Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 presidential campaign, I’m proud to have joined a group of my fellow former state directors to offer our endorsement of the president’s plan.
This week, as the Democratic National Committee gathers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to decide whether to approve the president’s preferred primary calendar, it’s worth digging deeper into why South Carolina deserves to be “First in Nation.” The Palmetto State is uniquely important not only because it represents the base of the Democratic Party, but because it serves as a key test for candidates seeking to win over the middle and deliver real solutions that benefit all Americans. In other words, South Carolina makes for a real-world trial run for the pragmatic politics that are necessary to win the nation and govern effectively.
Going back in time to 2019 and early 2020 when the first primary ballots were cast, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were big Democratic favorites. They both claimed an ability to win over voters of all races, income brackets and education levels. There was just one major problem: both were perfectly positioned to lose to Donald Trump in the general election.
Despite what some Twitter progressives might argue, this fact is not up for debate. In a presidential contest, turning out the progressive base is important — but it is not enough, and we must also persuade on-the-fence voters in swing states to ultimately win the Electoral College. This dynamic is our reality. At the end of the day, Joe Biden only won the Electoral College by 44,000 votes across three swing states — and he won those votes by persuading enough disaffected Republicans to cross over. With their flashy and bold progressive messages, it is safe to say Sanders and Warren would have struggled mightily to persuade those critical swing voters.
We can thank South Carolina voters (and and South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn!) for ending Sanders’ and Warren’s campaigns and, in choosing Joe Biden, paving the way for a pragmatic choice who could actually defeat Donald Trump.
But why did the buck stop in South Carolina? Because South Carolina is the quintessential microcosm of America: diverse, rural, and pragmatic. There’s a reason Jaime Harrison named his PAC the Dirt Road PAC. South Carolinians are … normal. They’re how the regular American thinks, and that’s why they knew if we were going to protect democracy and unseat Donald Trump, we were going to need someone who could actually beat him. Hence, the Clyburn endorsement of Joe Biden, and his ultimate victory for Democratic nominee.
As someone who works in Democratic politics, I know firsthand how progressive pragmatists operate. They can spot BS a mile away. They want to get things done. And they are tired of shiny objects on the far left and far right diverting our attention in the media and discourse away from solving problems and delivering results.
Quite simply, South Carolina is a critical moderator for Democrats.
During my time as state director for Beto O’Rourke in 2019, I drove thousands of miles all over the small but mighty state speaking with voters from all backgrounds, many of them Democrats. They’re people who live in the county, not the city. People who don’t often formally unionize, but band together in communities. People who know what success looks like because it’s defined by how you look out for one another.
The uber progressiveness of the far left doesn’t stick with many voters, and for those with whom it does, voters still fundamentally want a candidate who can do one thing: win.
When it comes to winning, political science to real-world election results to common sense all demonstrate that candidates who not only do well with their base but can also win over the middle do better than more ideologically extreme candidates. They’re more popular with voters, too. This is a fact that South Carolinians grasp intuitively — and Americans have that intuition to thank for the American Rescue Plan, Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson, the Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law and so much more.
With Trump already announced for 2024, it’ll take another round of moderation for our party to remember who can not only woo voters, but who can win. We don’t like to say we saved democracy in 2020, but perhaps you can.
Lauren Harper is co-founder of The Welcome Party and WelcomePAC, which work to grow a big-tent Democratic Party that wins. She formerly served as South Carolina state director for Beto O’Rourke and as communications and policy advisor to former Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin. You can reach her via email or on Twitter @laurenjhharper.
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