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Analysis: Few 2020 presidential candidates pitch new policies when campaigning in SC

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CONWAY — When Pete Buttigieg unveiled his plan to improve America's response to natural disasters, he knew he wanted to do it in this community where rising waters wreaked havoc.

The Democratic presidential candidate wanted to share his major policy announcement in South Carolina's historic river town, on a stage overlooking the Waccamaw River and in a spot once swallowed by floodwaters.

"The barn right here was nearly submerged," the Indiana city mayor said from a podium with a poster beneath it declaring "a new approach to disaster preparedness."

"The bridge behind us was the only road open to the rest of the state in this area," he added.

When Hurricane Florence hit in 2018, rains from the storm sent river levels rising more than 20 feet above normal. Floodwaters swallowed neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of people. Members of the National Guard would patrol submerged streets long after the storm had left the region.

Standing before nearly 200 people in Conway, Buttigieg announced he would set up a disaster commission within his first 100 days in office and launch a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather insurance program.

Buttigieg in Conway, SC

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg unveils his natural disaster plan in Conway, S.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 17. Buttigieg is one of just a handful of 2020 presidential candidates who have turned first to South Carolina voters when unveiling their national policies. Caitlin Byrd/Staff

"When you are at your most vulnerable, when you've lost a home or even lost a loved one, you should not also be losing time navigating a bureaucratic maze. And when I'm president, we're going to make sure that it's a simpler process," Buttigieg said.

While presidential candidates are certainly talking about their plans on the campaign trail, a Post and Courier analysis has found few are actually unveiling major policy initiatives in South Carolina, despite its status as an early primary state.

All but one of the 19 Democratic presidential candidates have made campaign stops in the Palmetto State, but despite the myriad of problems facing state residents, just five have rolled out major policy initiatives here.

"Campaigns are very strategic about where and when they're doing their policy announcements," said Molly O'Rourke, director of American University's political communication program.

For example, these issue-centric events can raise a candidate's national profile, pique the interest of voters and inspire donors to give.

"But really, truly, it's about improving their standing with voters in those states," O'Rourke said.

Buttigieg and Sanders — not Biden

To date, seven presidential policy rollouts have happened with a South Carolina backdrop. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg lead the pack, with two policy pronouncements each.

Bernie Sanders Charleston_02.JPG (copy)

Bernie Sanders enters the Royal Family Life Center in North Charleston, SC for a rally on Thursday, March 14, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have debuted one policy apiece in the Palmetto State.

Campaigns that have sought to use South Carolina as a backdrop say they did so because of the state's continuing deficiencies.

"It's definitely something that was taken into consideration when Sen. Sanders rolled out his plans on education and criminal justice reform in Orangeburg and Columbia," said Michael Wukela, Sanders' South Carolina communications director.

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"But really, it's an opportunity not just to campaign, but to demonstrate that these things we’re talking about impact real people, and that we get it — and that he gets it," Wukela said.

In addition to his recent Conway event, Buttigieg previewed his Douglass Plan to tackle racism in an op-ed published in the Charleston Chronicle just days before he appeared at the June 15 Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum in downtown Charleston.

Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke answers a question during the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum held Saturday, June 15, 2019, at the Charleston Music Hall. Brad Nettles/Staff

That forum was also where O'Rourke rolled out his small business plan, which called for the creation of 200,000 new small businesses and a $10 billion small business credit initiative for economically distressed areas.

Molly O'Rourke, the political communication expert, said the size of this year's Democratic presidential field has led to policies being diffused across the early states, where candidates pitch policy to audiences where the message is likely to resonate best. 

In Iowa, they're talking about the impact of Trump tariffs on farmers. In New Hampshire, the message is often around economics, like jobs, a wealth tax and rebuilding the middle-class.

In South Carolina, the first primary state where presidential messages are tested among a majority-black primary electorate, the go-to issue is the environment and climate change.

Connecting the dots

More than any other candidate, Warren has made policy rollouts central to her campaign.

When launching her housing plan, she toured rundown neighborhoods in the Mississippi Delta. When she attended a coastal community forum this April in Charleston, she detailed her policy to save public lands and stop drilling for fossil fuels.

"I thought coming here would be a good chance to let people talk about why this is important," she told the audience.

Booker also focused on the environment in South Carolina, where he rolled out the first piece of his environmental justice agenda while speaking to students at Allen University, a historically black school.


U.S. Sen. Cory Booker answers a question during a town hall event at the International Longshoremen's Hall on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Booker's South Carolina senior adviser, Clay Middleton, said talking about environmental justice was important to show voters — especially minority voters — that Booker understands how issues overlap.

"You don't want to lose your audience," Middleton said. "When someone talks about climate change in South Carolina, we get climate change. But Sen. Booker also gets that there's a connection between health and wellness and housing, and access to clean drinking water. He's talking about these things in a unique way because he sees the connection."

Politics aren't just about concrete policy. They are about the intangible, too.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the 2020 race, has not rolled out any major policies in South Carolina.

Instead, his visits have been anchored by town halls and roundtable events.

"Of course folks here know him. It's safe to say no other candidate has as deep of a history with South Carolina. But because of that folks know that as president, South Carolina will always have his ear," said Paige Hill, Biden's South Carolina communications director.

And that's political strategy, too.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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