Black Vote Is Democrats’ Mantra in Dixie: South Carolina Party Plots Senate Upset by Boosting Minority Turnout in Absentee
Manning, S.C. — JOHN CALHOUN LAND IV, weary after hosting a reception for Democrats’ underdog Senate candidate here, perks right up when a friend arrives at his prominent family’s law office. “We had a good day today,” George A. Wilson tells Cal Land. “Forty-three guys.”
He’s talking voters — black voters. For Mr. Wilson, a 53-year-old school-board official, and other Democratic activists here, every day lately is Election Day. They have been scrambling for weeks to persuade blacks, and a few whites, to vote early by absentee ballot instead of waiting until Tuesday. Without heavy black turnout, neither Senate hopeful Alex Sanders nor Gov. Jim Hodges has a snowball’s chance in a South Carolina summer. Yet Mr. Wilson confidently proclaims, “I see both races as ours to lose.”
The potential black vote is keeping Democrats’ hopes alive throughout the South as they fight to keep control of the closely divided Senate. Senate races in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, as well as Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, also could hinge on black turnout. “This is our year,” says Barry Walker Sr., 41, whose memory of voting snafus in the 2000 presidential race moved him to volunteer to help get out South Carolina’s black vote. “What happened down in Florida has illuminated things in the African-American community. We’re going to surprise people.”
Nowhere is the black vote more critical than in South Carolina, where white flight from the Democratic Party since the civil-rights era has given Republicans a near lock. The race to succeed the GOP’s centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond — with Mr. Sanders running against Rep. Lindsey Graham, a GOP leader in Bill Clinton’s impeachment — isn’t one of the half-dozen Senate tossups drawing most attention. Polls have the Republican ahead. But Democrats put Mr. Sanders in a second tier of longer-shot contenders who could well surprise on Tuesday night.
The 64-year-old former state senator, judge, college president and all-around raconteur will test Democratic boasts that their 2002 get-out-the-vote effort is the party’s best ever. “We’ve got it all,” says Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who’s not on the ballot this year.
The AFL-CIO is giving Democrats unprecedented muscle elsewhere, but unions aren’t a presence here. Nor are women’s and environmental groups. But South Carolina has among the nation’s largest black populations — 30% of its four million people — and nine out of 10 black voters choose Democrats.
Democrats have had a two-step victory formula: First, blacks must make up at least 25% of the actual vote. And nearly four of every 10 whites must vote Democratic. In 1998, Mr. Hodges ousted a GOP governor with that combination.
Gov. Hodges’s calculus is much the same this year. Although he lags behind GOP Rep. Mark Sanford in polls, some handicappers give him a sliver’s edge because he’s the incumbent. But Senate candidate Mr. Sanders started out relatively unknown, so he needs the black percentage of the vote to be higher, up to 30%, to beat 47-year-old Mr. Graham.
Democrats insist they will improve on 1998’s result. But Republicans say Democrats misread the past. Graham pollster Richard Quinn and his son Rick, the state House majority leader, have documented that black turnout in 1998 actually was historically low. Mr. Hodges won, they argue, because white turnout was even lower. “That won’t happen this year,” the pollster says. To that end, President Bush visited here last week to rally the GOP faithful.
Mr. Sanders does have some unusual help in motivating black voters. Sharing the ballot are two black candidates, one for attorney general and another for secretary of state. Some Democrats hope for another assist — from Mr. Clinton, a hero to many blacks. Neither the party nor Mr. Clinton’s office is saying for sure that he will tape phone messages or make Election Day calls to black radio stations, as he did here in 2000.
The national party is definitely chipping in. State party Chairman Dick Harpootlian complained after the 1998 campaign that national Democrats contributed “zero, nada, zilch minus.” This year, he says, “they’ve been very good to us.” He won’t divulge spending — estimated at several million dollars — or details. “This is a war,” he says, “and where we allocate our troops is proprietary information.”
The get-out-the-vote effort isn’t solely aimed at blacks. “We’re seeing downscale whites coming back to the party on economic issues,” says Mr. Harpootlian. Suburban “soccer moms,” teachers and college communities also are targets.
But blacks are the main prize. At the Sanders campaign’s ramshackle headquarters near the Capitol in Columbia, 27-year-old Wisconsin native Jon Carson, a Gore campaign veteran, coordinates with 13 field offices on federal and state races. “He’s a genius,” Mr. Harpootlian enthuses.
Mr. Carson and his team, using records of the past five general elections, have identified “weak” and “strong” Democratic voters, based on how often they voted. Strong voters get extra attention. The records don’t show race, but strategists can generally assume it from addresses. Party workers already have contacted 350,000 voters — nearly 30% of the expected 1.2 million total. Next Tuesday, many of them will get up to four contacts each from phoners or door knockers.
Three rooms of the Sanders headquarters recently were wall-to-wall with 2,400 brown bags stuffed with granola bars, Doritos and CapriSun drinks for volunteers who will walk targeted neighborhoods on Tuesday. Carpeting another room were volunteers’ clipboards, each listing voter names and addresses. Every household gets a voter guide, with Democratic candidates’ names and the resident’s polling-place address — more often a matter of confusion for blacks, who as a group tend to move more than whites do because fewer own homes.
Then there’s the work in Democratic fiefdoms such as the Land family’s in Clarendon County, in the state’s Midlands, where 55% of about 25,000 registered voters are blacks. “We’re the model for the state,” brags Cal Land, the 34-year-old scion of a prominent white family. The family — his father and law partner is state Sen. John Calhoun Land III — reflects the state’s surviving and unapologetic white Democrats, economic populists mostly, like Mr. Sanders and Gov. Hodges. The younger Land says he thinks the family might be distantly related to South Carolina’s famous pro-slavery senator from the 1800s, John Calhoun.
Since late September, the Lands, Mr. Wilson and other allies have been taking advantage of the state’s liberal absentee-voting law, which allows people about a dozen excuses to vote as much as six weeks before Election Day.
Mr. Wilson hopes to get 1,500 black absentee votes by Election Day. His recent “good day” brought his total to 1,012. He scours nursing homes, community centers and black churches, mostly searching for homebound, car-less or otherwise unmotivated voters. He helps them apply and vote by mail, or drives them to the voting registrar’s office. And he makes sure ex-cons get their voting rights reinstated. “The time when we used to win elections just on Election Day is long since past,” says Mr. Land.
But the Land forces will be at work on Tuesday, too — about 40 of them, calling and driving voters. The party tried to enlist Mr. Land to be on call Election Day in his capacity as a lawyer, just as pro-GOP lawyers are nationwide, in case of voting-irregularity questions. But he refused: “I’m of more value helping get 20 people out to vote than I am back here in my office, helping with maybe one or two.”