As the Democratic presidential primary cranked up last year, the national political reporters often called the Rev. Joseph Darby for his take on South Carolina.
Basically, they wanted the longtime civil rights leader, church elder and community activist to predict who’d win. They called again when Pete Buttigieg won Iowa and after Bernie Sanders took New Hampshire. Darby’s answer never changed.
Who’s going to win?
“I said, ‘Wait for South Carolina. He ain’t dead yet,’” Darby recalled earlier this week.
Of course, it turns out he was right — but that’s not what anyone wanted to hear at the time.
The former vice president was on his third run for the White House and nowhere near as shiny and new as Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren or even Sanders 2.0. Biden was not an exciting narrative.
But Darby knew something many in the media and the business of political punditry could not grasp. Most Democratic voters, particularly many South Carolina African Americans, weren’t interested in flocking to the flavor-of-the-month, forging a new progressive platform or breaking any glass ceilings. They just wanted to win.
And Biden, they had concluded, was the man to beat President Trump.
It was a refrain often heard from community leaders around South Carolina in the fall of 2019: I like Harris (or Sanders or Warren), but I’m voting for Biden. Because he can win.
This state won’t cast its electoral votes for President-elect Biden next month, but South Carolina Democrats all but put him in the White House. Specifically, African American Democratic voters.
Coming into South Carolina in February, Biden had never won a presidential primary. A few days out, when it would have maximum impact, Congressman Jim Clyburn — probably the state’s most influential politician and elder statesman — endorsed Biden. That gave the race a new narrative.
“I know Joe,” Clyburn said. “But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
Nearly half the people who showed up for the primary called Clyburn’s endorsement an “important factor” in their vote. And it was, no question. But the congressman wasn’t steering the electorate so much as he was reflecting it. He let voters know their hunches were right and called them to action.
Darby says part of Biden’s appeal in South Carolina was that he’s a known quantity. Former Sen. Fritz Hollings took on Biden as a protégé early on, and the Delaware senator has been a regular presence here ever since.
In other words, he knew South Carolina, and South Carolina knew him.
“He’s highly regarded, and he’s a centrist — like a lot of black folks in South Carolina,” Darby says.
That’s another thing the pundits or, for that matter, much of the electorate does not understand. The “black vote” is not monolithic, certainly no more than the “white vote.” But, like a lot of their white neighbors, many African Americans in this state are pretty middle-of-the-road. Many even lean conservative.
Biden’s politics matched their own, as he had demonstrated through the years.
On Feb. 29, Biden took 49% of the vote in a field of seven candidates, and the momentum sparked by his South Carolina primary victory never abated. He went on to win 41 other states and D.C. in the primaries.
This state did for other states what Clyburn had done for voters here, and that enthusiasm carried into the general election. Biden, the man who'd never won a primary before the last day of February 2020, won more votes than any presidential candidate in history. And it all began here.
So maybe the reporters, the pundits and the Democratic Party should listen to South Carolina — a place where Democrats and Republicans live next door to one another, learn how to work together and reflect the diversity of the country.
Darby has an idea about that, too.
“We really ought to be the first primary state, because Iowa and New Hampshire don’t look like the Democratic Party anymore,” he says.
He’s absolutely right. If nothing else, that would save Democrats a lot of time. It might even save them from themselves.