WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s effort to make South Carolina the first major battlefield in the Democratic presidential primary has a second major beneficiary: Vice President Kamala Harris.
While Biden thinks he’ll get the most reward for his own plan — putting his best political terrain first — party strategists say it also creates a natural advantage for Harris in a future run for the White House.
Harris is the first black woman ever elected on a national ticket, and black voters often make up a majority of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters – with black women voting in greater numbers than black men. Just like her having favorable grades languished well below the break-even point in national polls, her ranking has remained strong with black voters — at 67.4 percent the latest YouGov survey of registered voters.
“It traps her,” said Pete D’Alessandro, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont’s 2020 bid. “I don’t think Pete Buttigieg is really happy about this .”
Buttigieg, who is Biden’s transportation secretary, won Iowa’s first primary in 2020. But he struggled to find support among voters of color in the ensuing primary and dropped out of the contest after Biden’s big win in South Carolina.
“For the vice president, this positions her when Biden’s presidency is over,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who has advised national party organizations. “She’ll be perfectly prepared to do well when she comes out of the gate.”
The Biden calendar, approved Friday by a key panel of the Democratic National Committee, would put South Carolina first in a string of five states sanctioned to hold early primary elections. It would be followed on the same day by New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia, and finally Michigan. Iowa would be evicted from the top spot as well as the top five.
The new calendar would be “good for the Biden-Harris ticket,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist who urged Biden to choose a black woman as his running mate in 2020.
“The Vice President has been and continues to be very popular among African American voters and has worked hard and used her platform as Vice President to engage and elevate the voices and face people who have traditionally been unheard and who are now are also central to the nomination process,” said Finney.
But there are hurdles to the plan and, according to some Democratic insiders, caveats that it would necessarily help Harris.
The full DNC has yet to vote on Biden’s proposal early next year, and officials in Iowa and New Hampshire say they will hold their contests for other states regardless of the penalties the DNC imposes on line jumpers or candidates campaigning in rogue states.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive viewed by some supporters as a potential future presidential nominee, said he expects Iowa to fall by the wayside, but the other three states will remain heavily contested in the early stages of future nomination battles .
“I think people will be competing in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and these three primaries will basically be the starting lineup,” Khanna said. “It’s a good demographic mix of black voters, working-class white voters, and Latino and Asian-American voters.”
While Biden’s recommendation included a provision that allowed the DNC to revisit the primary calendar every four years, stripping South Carolina of its status once granted could be politically complicated. It took the Democratic establishment many years to jettison Iowa, despite frequent and harsh criticism of the signature caucuses and an electorate much whiter than the party at the national level.
Still, D’Alessandro, who spent decades in Iowa watching the expectation game played among presidential candidates, said Harris is at risk if the bar for her success is set too high. Too thin a win for her in a state believed to be in her wheelhouse could hurt her in subsequent primaries.
“If we go four years into talking about how Kamala Harris gets into trouble because of this and she doesn’t do as well as predicted, that’s not going to be considered a win,” he said. “Of course I’d rather be the vice president with the chance to win South Carolina and win it handily.”
Harris spent time in South Carolina visiting college campuses and talking about choice during midterms. The calendar as a whole could favor the vice president, who hails from California, which borders the state South Carolina would follow in the nomination process: Nevada.
“The one-two punch of South Carolina and Nevada is a very strong nomination calendar for someone like the vice president,” said a Democrat with knowledge of the early calendar process.
A top adviser on a previous Democratic presidential campaign said putting South Carolina first won’t stop rivals from running against Harris if she’s the incumbent vice president or out of office, adding that the Biden- plan is more likely to harm the party with persuasive voters. on general election battlefields than to help it.
“How many black voters are convinced that the Democratic Party cares about them because South Carolina leads the way? Answer = 0”, said the adviser in a text message. “How many low-income white voters have confirmed their belief that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them through the messages of ‘why’ South Carolina goes first? Answer = all.”
There are reasons to believe that going first does not necessarily make a state the most influential in the primary process. South Carolina, which provided a springboard for Biden after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, was the fourth state to hold a Democratic primary in 2020.
Jeff Berman, who designed President Barack Obama’s 2008 strategy to win delegates to that year’s party convention, focused on Michigan when asked about Biden’s calendar.
“The selection of Michigan, a state on the industrial battlefield, as the last state in the pre-window will cleverly transition the primaries from the earlier smaller states to the sprawling nationwide Super Tuesday,” when most delegates in one day are in play, Berman said. “It requires the presidential candidates to prove they are capable of winning this type of state that is so essential to victory in the fall.”
South Carolina, one of the most Republican states in the country, is not competitive at the presidential level in general elections. But backers say its relatively small size, four distinct regions and racially diverse electorate make it ideal as an early testing ground for candidates hoping to win the Democratic nomination and presidency.
Ideal or not for the party, according to Seawright it suits Harris well. He pointed to South Carolina’s long tradition of historically black colleges and universities, “the power and momentum behind the voices of African-American women,” and a state that craves a candidate with a message as all the assets for a Harris candidacy .
“South Carolina is also known for being nice to those who have been nice to it,” he said. “And Kamala Harris has been a friend of this state for a while and I think if it’s her chance to run for president again, it could be beneficial for her.”