Congressman James Clyburn told John O'Connor of The State newspaper in Columbia that the record turnout in South Carolina's Democratic presidential primary means the Democratic nominee has a good chance of winning the traditionally Republican state in November when the entire South Carolina Legislature, all six Congressional seats and one US Senate seat, is up for election.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter carried the state, but in 1980 an early-in-the-process Republican primary was initiated. That South Carolina primary, set just after New Hampshire's, established the Republican/red state tradition in South Carolina. Lee Atwater was launching his career as a Machiavellian political operative and his genius with a mean-streak was the driving force behind the early primary. With no balancing voice from the Democratic side, the Republican primary in South Carolina enticed presidential contenders to veer to the right and give voice to Lee's divisive issues of race, religion, and such "family values" as opposition to choice and gay rights.
Since Jimmy Carter, South Carolina's electoral votes have gone to a Republican candidate for president for seven successive election cycles. Voter demographics have suggested that many poor and working class folks in South Carolina have just lost hope and don't vote, feeling like their votes don't matter. Saturday's large turnout could mean that times are-a-changing.
Clyburn contended that if Democrats "continue to run a really good, futuristic campaign, South Carolina and other Southern states will be in play, come November". Clyburn is the House Majority Whip and the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Congress.
More than 532,000 people voted in the Democratic primary, setting an all-time record and besting the party's 2004 primary total by 240,000 votes. The Democratic turnout was 87,000 more than in the Republican Primary vote a week before. Across the state, 444,183 votes were cast in the Republican primary, down by more than 100,000 votes from the 2004 Republican primary. Actually, 2004 was the first presidential primary vote for the Democrats other than one in 1992. The South Carolina Democrats had opted for a more complicated and time consuming caucus system to choose delegates pledged to presidential candidates.
Commenting on the impressive turnout of voters in Saturday's primary, Carol Fowler, chairperson of the South Carolina Democratic Party said, "I think it's just wonderful, I think it's a great recommendation for our candidates." Fowler continued, "South Carolina is a state in which Republicans have outnumbered Democrats by a large margin in Presidential politics, for well over a decade. Tonight, South Carolina voters overwhelmingly voted Democratic. More than 530,000 South Carolinians said, 'Enough is enough!'"
Carol Fowler also said, "This is a remarkable occurrence, but it's honestly no surprise. Democrats have three excellent candidates who have inspired voters all over South Carolina and our country. This is a huge rejection of the Republican Party at both the federal and state level. South Carolina has been known as the base of the Republican Party, but tonight South Carolina voters said they've had enough of their failed policies. Voters want change and they're done with Republicans."
According to exit polls, a little more than one-fifth of voters on Saturday considered themselves independents.
In Spartanburg County some 34,000 people voted in the 2004 Republican primary, while just 2,234 voted in the Democratic contest, only about 6 percent of all primary votes cast across the county. 25,458 voted in Saturday's Democratic Primary in Spartanburg County while 28,368 voted in the Republican Primary. Commenting on the swing of voters to the Democratic Primary in Spartanburg County, Former Congresswoman and the Democratic Party Chairperson for Spartanburg County Liz Patterson said, "The tide may be shifting. People want to be certain that everyone understands nobody or no party owns those (state legislature) seats."
I was a long-time advocate for a Presidential Primary to replace the narrowing caucus system that actually suppressed voter participation in many ways when I was a member of the South Carolina Democratic Party's Executive Committee and Executive Council. It is rewarding to now see great numbers of people voting in the Democratic Primary for hope and change. We shall overcome Atwater's legacy of limiting the influence of progressive politics among everyday people.
Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and political activist in Columbia, South Carolina.