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Influx of SC newcomers could add unpredictability to 2020 Democratic primary

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Former Vice President Joe Biden greets voters after a town hall event at the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall during his campaign trip to Charleston Sunday July 7, 2019. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

COLUMBIA — On Feb. 29, Lisa Grant will be voting in a South Carolina Democratic presidential primary for the first time.

It's not because she just became old enough to vote or because she hasn't voted in Democratic primaries before. Rather, it's because Grant moved to South Carolina from Massachusetts in August 2017.

"It's the first time I've lived in an early-voting state, so it's exciting," said Grant, who plans to cast her ballot for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Grant's situation is far from unique. The art director and mother of three is one of thousands of South Carolina residents who moved to the state in the past few years. Indeed, Grant's own next-door neighbors in Chapin are from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and others nearby hail from Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"I've got a University of Michigan sweatshirt, and every time I wear it to the gas station I get all kinds of comments from all the Ohio people," Grant said.

The massive influx of new residents could inject an additional element of unpredictability to the crucial "First in the South" primary. They bring with them unknown political ideologies and are often harder for campaigns to reach because of how little voting data is available about them.

In 2017 and 2018 alone, South Carolina added more than 100,000 residents from other states, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That trend may well have continued through 2019, though data is not yet available for that year.

Thanks to all those new residents, South Carolina was the ninth-fastest-growing state in the country in 2018. In the longer term, the state's population has approximately doubled since 1970 to a little bit more than 5 million.

The growth has been particularly prominent in the state's coastal and urban areas. Myrtle Beach in the northeast corner of the state and Hilton Head Island and Bluffton in the southeast have drawn many retirees, while Charleston and Greenville have also seen new residents moving for jobs or college.

The newcomers may have already left an imprint on South Carolina politics, potentially contributing to U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham's upset victory in the 2018 midterms, which made him the first Democrat to represent the Charleston area in four decades.

Even though she's voted in prior Democratic primaries, Grant said she has not been contacted by phone-bankers or canvassers from any of the campaigns seeking to win her over — a sign that some of those many newcomers may be slipping through the cracks as campaign organizers work to gin up support for their candidates.

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Making it even more difficult for the campaigns, South Carolina has open primaries, and voters are not required to register with a specific party, so it may not even be clear with which party the new residents usually identify.

Clay Middleton, who was a senior political adviser on U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's campaign before he dropped out, said campaigns have some tools to seek out potential voters. If they voted in the 2018 midterms but not the 2016 election, for example, they may be susceptible to persuasion.

The Booker campaign would also seek out S.C. newcomers who had moved from New Jersey, who may have more knowledge about the senator from their former home state. But pursuing new residents without even that limited type of information could be tricky.

"You can get a list of new people that have registered to vote in South Carolina, but if you don't have any history of them, do you have the resources to put in another $200,000 trying to reach people who you can only hope are Democrats?" Middleton said.

The minimal information about these new voters could benefit campaigns with more money, said South Carolina Democratic strategist Tyler Jones. They are more likely to be able to afford to contact them with the risk in mind that it may turn out to be a waste of time if they have no interest in voting in the primary, he said.

"Because we don't register by party in South Carolina, it's extremely difficult to target those voters, especially in a presidential primary when the only thing you have to go off is previous primary voting history," Jones said. "That's why I think TV is still so effective in general because that's reaching the masses."

Other South Carolina politicians have taken note of the shifting electorates in their own districts and say it could lead to some surprises on primary day.

State Rep. JA Moore, D-Goose Creek, said a flood of new residents moved into his district in recent years, which he has tried to keep track of as he gears up to run for reelection. Berkeley County has seen some of the fastest growth in the state.

"I think we have to be very conscious of the fact that the electorate in 2018 was different than the electorate in 2016, which is completely different from the electorate in 2020," said Moore, who remains undecided after endorsing U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California before she dropped out of the race.

Another rapidly growing area of the state is up north in York County, where the expansion of Charlotte's suburbs has spilled over into the Rock Hill area represented by state Rep. John King, who supported Booker before he dropped out.

"It will play a big part because you have people who are new to the community who may not know their local officials yet, but they're watching the national stage," King said. "And seeing as Democrats have the only primary, I think you'll find people are going to vote that day even though they may not typically be Democrats."

David Slade contributed to this report. Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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