Democratic presidential candidates, you have a problem.
South Carolina hosts the first primary that will test your ability to win among a diverse electorate, but some of you apparently aren’t cutting it with the party’s most important demographic.
The Washington Post recently reported “African-Americans say presidential candidates are missing basic connections.” Yeah, more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters are black, and many community leaders say that — outside of Joe Biden — many of you rate “needs improvement.”
Bernie Sanders ruffled feathers at an Upstate church, Kamala Harris’ sorority sisters say they’re out of the loop and Beto O’Rourke has gotten flak for a lack of specifics.
But it’s early, and there’s time. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one — as Pete Buttigieg did.
Last week, the Indiana mayor made a campaign swing through North Charleston and Orangeburg — cities with large minority populations — to talk about issues of race and diversity ... since he’s polling at about 2 percent in black communities.
But in both cities, Buttigieg drew overwhelmingly white audiences.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor at Nichols Chapel AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston branch NAACP, says Buttigieg’s reaction was instructive.
“Buttigieg did the right thing,” Darby says. “He said, ‘I need help’ rather than saying, ‘I’ve got things all worked out for you.’”
Darby has watched campaigns for decades, and knows what he’s talking about. He suggests candidates listen more than they preach, actually talk to voters, use their ideas ... and skip the stunts.
“If you go to a church, go to church,” Darby says. “Don’t do a drive-by visit.”
But don’t expect to preach a single sermon in a black church and, as state Sen. Marlon Kimpson says, have the “black vote” locked up.
Kimpson hosted a town hall forum for presidential candidates in 2016, and is doing so again. He says everyone should realize times change, and endorsements from community leaders don’t ensure the votes will follow.
“I think the African American community is going to try and determine who is the most electable candidate,” Kimpson says. “So be genuine. If you don’t have a Southern accent in New York, D.C., or Florida, don’t try it here. We can smell a phony.”
In other words, if you don’t know how to eat oysters or Frogmore stew, admit it. Be gracious and accept our hospitality — the one universal language in South Carolina.
And drink sweet tea. Anything else is criminal.
Veteran state Rep. David Mack, who’s worked on presidential campaigns, says many candidates miss the point — and importance — of retail politics, and that shows a lack of understanding.
“Too many candidates think they have to have a message for the African-American community, another for the Latino community and yet another for the working-class white community,” Mack says. “Just talk about common themes. We are all the same — we all care about housing, education, infrastructure, health care. Forge a coalition.”
Every candidate should have that advice on the wall of their campaign headquarters.
The preconceived notions that Mack alludes to are dangerous. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a political consultant for more than two decades, says the black community is not as traditional and conformist as people believe, and folks are not as concerned with party as issues — such as health care for all and a $15 minimum wage.
“We are more interested in ‘we the people’ than ‘we the party,’” Gilliard says.
There are a lot of candidates out there this year, and not all of you will make it to Feb. 29. The ones who do will be those who follow the advice of locals: Talk to voters individually, don’t assume the black community is monolithic. And if you aren’t really interested in listening, the voters won’t be, either.
“When you connect with folks, they can believe in you,” Mack says. “Let them know your values. That tells us whether a candidate is going to represent what we want and what we need.”
So come on down, stay a while and soak up some South Carolina — if you want to have any chance in the rest of the country.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.