Out on the hustings, people often ask me: “Can you explain South Carolina?”
I just shake my head.
It’s complicated, I say.
For those keeping an eye on the upcoming South Carolina primary contests, including the droves of journalists now combing the state for fresh fodder, a bit of background is in order.
Essentially, the state is three within one, each with its own personality and voting history — Upcountry (conservative), Midlands (mixed) and Lowcountry (liberal) — plus the separate nation of Charleston, which is its own, singular place. The city is a Democrat’s town, owing not least to its large African-American community. But also, port towns tend to play a little looser than the land-locked. Most of South Carolina otherwise consists of small rural towns that honor tradition in all its forms.
Most important, however, South Carolina is the joker in the nation’s deck. Although increasingly difficult to put the state in a box politically — so many non-natives have discovered its charm and beauty — certain relevant characteristics of its indigenous peoples bear mention.
First, South Carolinians aren’t just anti-establishment. They’re anti-everything if it means they’re expected to perform or respond in certain predicted ways. This tendency is especially acute when elites (aka not from around here) are involved. Thus, a local might do the opposite of what is anticipated based on history or demographics, even if against his own interests.
Companion to this quirk is a strong current of what-the-hell-ism that courses through the veins of generations of good ol’ boys and girls, i.e. descendants of the Scots-Irish with all their stubborn pride. If they don’t much cotton to foreigners (see above), they also don’t care much for authority. In their book, the fact that candidates think they should be president pretty much disqualifies them for the office.
But you gotta vote for somebody. May as well be Donald Trump. Is he everything a true Southerner dislikes in another human being? Absolutely. “But if the elites don’t like him,” goes the thinking, “then maybe I do.” See how this thing rolls?
Same thing on the Democratic side. At any other time, Bernie Sanders would be an impossible candidate — unfamiliar and beyond the norms of Southern rectitude. He’s loud, angry and graceless with an accent you don’t hear much in these parts.
But Sanders has something the others don’t. He’s real as dirt. Southerners have a knack for spotting a fraud.
Hillary Clinton enters troubled waters here, particularly among African-Americans. Despite a likely endorsement from the ever-influential Rep. James Clyburn, it may not matter enough. As just one signal, Clinton’s recent visit to the state for Martin Luther King Day celebrations left many feeling colder than the weather dictated.
She was nowhere in sight for the march in Columbia, where Sanders joined the front line. At a ceremony on the State House steps, she breezed out of the warmth of the building, took her seat and read her prepared remarks. People notice these things. At another service later in the day, half of the black audience held Sanders signs, according to Bud Ferillo, a longtime South Carolina political operative and now head of the nascent South Carolina Collaborative on Race and Reconciliation.
The message? The Clinton machine is showing its age and is out of touch with Democratic voters in 2016, says Ferillo. His prediction: Clinton might still win the Palmetto State, but if Sanders puts in the time Barack Obama did in 2007-08 (“he lived here”), he could pull an upset.
An African-American friend in Camden responded to my plea for comment with only a photo showing Clinton dancing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with the host’s black DJ. The caption, playing off the rap hit “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”: “Now watch me beg, for all the black votes.”
Then again, what the hell, it’s South Carolina. All you know for sure is that whatever happens, there will be blood.