Democratic Presidential Candidates in 2020: Another look in South Carolina

Friday, March 6, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (left) poses for a photo with DePauw political science professor Bruce Stinebrickner prior to last week’s South Carolina primary election.
Courtesy photo

The formal 2020 presidential nominating process began with four single-state contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) before shifting gears on March 3 to the 14-state extravaganza known as “Super Tuesday.”

As a follow-up to my Iowa observations a month ago, I went to South Carolina last week to see what I could see. In this article, I’ll report my observations and impressions about individual candidates, sometimes revising and sometimes confirming what I had thought after having seen each of them in Iowa.

I shall begin with a few introductory points before beginning my candidate-by-candidate commentary.

Politically, geographically, and demographically, South Carolina is not Iowa.

First, as important as the South Carolina primary was thought to be, not all candidates prioritized campaigning there as they had in Iowa. With Super Tuesday coming a mere three days after South Carolina, candidates needed to make strategic decisions about where to spend their time and their resources.

Candidate Amy Klobuchar, for example, made no public appearances in South Carolina the last four days before the primary. She was elsewhere doing what she thought she needed to do to try to keep her candidacy afloat. (Whatever she did, of course, must have failed. Klobuchar ended her candidacy two days after the South Carolina primary and one day before Super Tuesday.)

Candidate Joe Biden, by contrast, seemed to campaign nonstop in South Carolina, the “firewall” state that he and his advisers believed that he simply had to win. So did candidate Tom Steyer, whose last best and only hope was to make a splash in South Carolina.

Second, the geography and demographics of Iowa are far more amenable to observing campaign events than South Carolina’s. Much of Iowa’s population is concentrated in Des Moines, the state’s only major metropolitan area and one that is conveniently located in the center of the state.

South Carolina’s somewhat larger population is spread across a number of sizable metropolitan areas in different parts of the state: Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, etc. In turn, traveling to and from various candidates’ campaign appearances is more time-consuming than in Iowa, where I could essentially set up shop in Des Moines and seldom had to venture further than an hour’s drive in any direction.

Finally, as even casual observers of the presidential nominating process probably know, South Carolina has a far greater percentage of African Americans than Iowa does.

In the last four days before the South Carolina primary polls closed, I saw Democratic candidates Joe Biden (twice), Tom Steyer (twice), Pete Buttigieg (twice), Bernie Sanders (once) and Elizabeth Warren (twice). I talked (and got selfies, of course) with Biden, Steyer, and Buttigieg, but not with either Warren or Sanders.

I did not make it to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s rally in the Charleston area on the evening before the primary. Nor did I get to see Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign event held at the same time as the Trump rally just a couple of miles away.

Bernie Sanders: The Orator

I had seen candidate Sanders’s absolutely splendid delivery of a campaign speech in Iowa a month ago, and in South Carolina I saw him speak at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, a cavernous venue that could accommodate upwards of five or six thousand people. Speaking from a stage in front of perhaps three to four thousand people, Sanders once again exhibited his first-rate public speaking skills.

The candidate began by shouting “Thank you, Myrtle Beach!” to the crowd. Speaking from a small podium and inconspicuously referring to notes, he thanked various local notables for their support, including the state senator who had given a rousing introduction of Sen. Sanders before he appeared on the stage.

Next Sanders forcefully declared that “We must, we can, beat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern history.” Then he introduced the phrase that would anchor most of the rest of his rousing speech: “We are going to win because . . . .” Using that refrain, the candidate identified a number of problems in the contemporary United States that a Sanders presidency would remedy: a low minimum wage; 500,000 homeless people; inadequate access to affordable day care for working families; the low salaries of public school teachers; the cost of and access to health care; climate change; the “broken” immigration system; gun violence; and so forth.

In concluding his speech, Sanders distinguished the wealthy (“the 1 percent”) and the rest of us (“the 99 percent”) and forcefully asserted that “If we stand together, the 99 percent will win!”

What makes Sanders an outstanding public speaker? In my view, many things. He spoke clearly and articulately and passionately, using his microphone well and seeming to speak from his heart. His speech was easy to follow, and his “We are going to win . . .” refrain was helpful and engaging. He did not stay tied to the podium, but instead moved energetically and effectively around the stage, keeping the crowd engaged and attentive.

He occasionally interjected bits of well-received humor. For example, after identifying Donald Trump as a “pathological liar, corrupt administrator, a racist, a homophobe, a sexist, a xenophobe and a religious bigot,” Sanders got a good laugh when he added “and those are his good points.” Sanders occasionally shifted his mic from one hand to the other, using his free arm to emphasize points with a wave and occasional finger-wagging.

Sanders spoke for 29 minutes, packing in a lot of information and exhortations, but not going on so long as to lose his audience. The crowd, many or most of whom were Sanders supporters, reacted enthusiastically.

I watched several “undecided” people with whom I had talked while waiting in line and they clearly seemed favorably impressed by Sanders’s speech. For reasons I cannot pinpoint, Sanders’s campaign speeches to me seem significantly more effective and better delivered when seen in person than they do on television.

All candidates for public office are not good public speakers, any more than all college professors are. But good public speaking is certainly a useful skill for someone running for elective public office, and most serious candidates for the presidency are well above average in this regard. Regardless of how one feels about the substance of what candidate Bernie Sanders says, he clearly seems to me to be a first-rate orator.

Joe Biden: The familiar and experienced candidate in his late 70s who has lots to talk about and who likes to engage with people

Candidate Biden is far from the most articulate and eloquent public speaker you will ever hear. Once in a while he confuses words and sometimes he can’t remember a word or name. He often begins to enumerate points by saying “point one,” and then never gets to a “point two.” He seems better at questions-and-answers than at speeches, and he’s absolutely at his best at “rope-lining” (interacting with a crowd after an event by working his way along a rope-line: greeting people, listening and engaging with them, taking selfies and, yes, often touching and even hugging them).

Having experienced three Biden events in Iowa, I participated and observed the candidate’s absolutely masterful rope-lining at two events in South Carolina, the first at Carolina Coastal University in Conway and the second at Mount Zion Baptist Church hall in Sumter.

During his Sumter event, Biden began to tell a story about a New York City woman being “hit on” by a real estate agent. To save money, the woman wanted to downsize from a one-bedroom apartment to a studio. But Biden couldn’t remember the word “studio” and said “utility” instead: “The woman needed to downsize from her one-bedroom apartment to a utility.” Realizing that he had the wrong word and that he couldn’t think of the right one, Biden asked the audience for help—“What’s the word I want?” A man in the audience shouted out “studio,” and Biden thanked the man and continued his story.

Some minutes later Biden was responding to a question from a man about what he would do if Republican obstructionism continued in the Senate during a Biden presidency. Suddenly the candidate looked at a woman in the audience sitting near the original questioner and said “You’re grimacing. You seem frustrated. What’s the matter?” Biden handed his mic to the woman (probably in her late 30s or 40s), and she said that she could tell what “drove” Bernie Sanders, but didn’t know what “drove” Joe Biden. She asked the candidate what “the fire” was that motivated him to run for the presidency.

Biden got his microphone back from her and said something like this: “Just because I don’t wave my arms and raise my voice all the time like some other candidates doesn’t mean that I don’t have passion and a strong reason for doing what I am doing. I am motivated by decency and the urgent need to return civility to American politics. That’s my passion and that is why I am running for president, to beat Donald Trump and to save the soul of America.

“I get pretty worked about that,” he said in a forceful voice that seemed to reflect exactly what the woman was looking for.

Finally, let me report my encounter with Biden on the rope line in South Carolina. It started with a handshake and my saying something like “Those [CBS] debate moderators the other night [in the televised South Carolina candidates debate] were terrible. I think that you did a good job keeping your cool and handling the situation.”

Biden: “Yeah, it was a problem, wasn’t it?”

Me: “I especially liked your suggesting that it was probably your Catholic school background that led you to be the only candidate who seemed to follow the rules and stop talking when the allotted time had expired.”

Biden replied with a smile: “Yeah, that’s probably true.”

Me: “I went many years to Catholic schools myself at about the same time as you, and that experience probably is what made you try to follow the rules.”

A smile, a quick embrace around my shoulders, a selfie (as I’ve noted before, Joe Biden is an absolute master at taking selfies with cell phones thrust into his hands—an absolute master!), and this candidate who clearly likes people continued happily down the rope-line.

Elizabeth Warren: The Athletic Orator

I don’t know anything about Elizabeth Warren’s athletic or sports background. What I do know is that I don’t remember ever seeing anyone so literally and gracefully “bound” onto and off stages and speaking platforms as she.

I attended a Warren “Canvassing Kick-off” event in Columbia on the morning of the primary. Perhaps 250 people were gathered in a nice event space rented for the event, and several very good warm-up speeches by South Carolina elected politicians of one sort or another preceded Warren’s appearance.

Then the candidate burst out of a door to the audience’s right, bounded on to the speaker’s platform, and waved greetings to the crowd, moving around the platform in an energetic, athletic and graceful manner.

As in Iowa, Warren’s speech was a coherent, engaging, enthusiasm-inducing presentation. Her theme was investing in the younger generation. “Why,” she asked, “do we respect investments by individuals that result in their becoming billionaires — like some candidates for the Democratic nomination this year — and not see that spending money to improve the futures of our children in that same light — as an investment that will bring dividends in the future?”

She then ticked off her plans to provide working families with access to affordable day care, improve quality pre-K education, upgrade public school education, make higher education more accessible and affordable, and forgive student debt. All of these plans, she said, could be paid for by her proposed “two cents on the dollar” tax on individuals’ wealth in excess of $50 million.

“Two cents on the dollar” for the very richest of Americans can accomplish so much for our next generation, she said. “Let’s do it. This is our moment” to accomplish great things. Let’s “fight hard” and get things done. (She mentioned climate change very briefly in passing, even though it seemed to me that it would have been simple and appropriate to include fighting climate change as another element of investing in the next generation. In Warren’s campaign appearances that I have seen in Iowa and South Carolina, climate change does not seem to have a very high priority for her. It does for me.)

Warren’s 22-minute speech was articulately and eloquently delivered. She spoke with passion and occasionally threw in bits of humor. It was a virtuoso performance that ended when she bounded off the stage, posed for a group photo with some campaign volunteers who were sitting in front, did a few selfies, and exited.

Pete Buttigieg: The “too programmed” candidate and the worst rope-line candidate I have ever encountered

I went to Iowa somewhat favorably impressed by Mayor Pete. I left Iowa less so. In South Carolina, candidate Buttigieg sank still lower in my estimation. I shed no tears on hearing of his surprise withdrawal from the race late Sunday afternoon, nearly a full day after the South Carolina primary results became known (He finished a distant fourth, about one percentage point ahead of the distant fifth finisher, Elizabeth Warren.) and two days before Super Tuesday.

Candidate Buttigieg had a 5 p.m. “Community Conversation” scheduled for the American Legion hall in Sumter on the day before the primary. Doors were to open at 4 p.m. On a windy, chilly afternoon a small crowd began to line up behind me (I arrived about 3:50 p.m.) and a few other early arrivals soon after 4 p.m.

We waited. Buttigieg staff members entered and exited the building. We asked when the doors were going to open. The stipulated time changed to 4:45 p.m., but no one (except media folks) was admitted until a minute or two after 5 p.m.

There was some grumbling in the crowd and I was among the grumblers.

The 150 or so people in attendance all got seats arranged on four sides of a speaker’s platform in a modestly-sized hall. We waited some more.

Finally, about 5:45 p.m., an articulate and impressive young South Carolina state representative introduced himself and then welcomed candidate Buttigieg, who strode energetically onto the speaker’s platform to join him. Buttigieg gave a 10-minute presentation and then turned to the state representative who had introduced him and asked him to pose questions that he had on his mind. The state representative asked a series of questions relating to South Carolina: ground water and other environmental matters, resources and regulations relating to public schools and nursing homes, etc. The candidate responded to them in an informed and articulate way. Then the candidate solicited questions from the crowd. After three questions from the audience, Buttigeig’s “Community Conversation” in Sumter concluded.

I’ve provided all the details in the previous paragraph as a way of setting the scene for my subsequent rope-line encounter with Mayor Pete. I was perhaps the sixth or so member of the audience that he encountered. I shook his hand, said that he had done a good job in his responses to questions, handed a waiting staff member my cell phone, and then gently said something like this: “I have a suggestion that might be helpful. A lot of people stood outside a long time on this cold, windy day and we were not admitted inside until just after 5 p.m. Then you arrived 45 minutes late. There was some grumbling in the crowd and it might have been good if you had begun by briefly expressing regrets about being late and thanked the audience for waiting.” He looked at me and said something like “I didn’t get that. Would you say it again?” I did. He then stared blankly at me, shook my hand again, and said “thank you for coming today.” Our selfie was snapped and he moved on down the line.

Buttigieg’s reaction to my suggestion, coupled with a similar sort of response to something I had said to him on an Iowa rope line, troubles me. One thing is absolutely clear: He is not a Joe Biden on the rope-line.

Mayor Pete’s rope-line interactions — in reality, more like non-interactions — with me have given me pause for thought. I am also troubled by his seeming to be overly “programmed” in his speaking and responses to questions, which I had first noticed in Iowa, as well as rivals Elizabeth Warren’s and Amy Klobuchar’s criticisms of him along the same lines during the Nevada debate.

Moreover, there was the very nature of the “Community Conversation:” Quite clearly candidate Buttigieg knew in advance what topics (“questions”) the state representative was going to raise. It’s true that the candidate’s responses were generally articulate and instructive. But why pretend that this event was a “community conversation?” Why not just give a speech and either take (or not take) questions from the audience after the speech? As rival Elizabeth Warren implied in the Nevada TV debate, maybe candidate Buttigeig is more a captive of his consultants than of his own “authentic” self.

Tom Steyer: The candidate who asserts that his very successful business career followed by a decade of political grassroots organizing around the U.S. make him the best candidate both to beat Donald Trump and to bring about environmental, economic and racial justice for all Americans.

I was very impressed by Tom Steyer in Iowa and was generally impressed again — although less so, to be sure — in South Carolina. He is energetic, smart, driven, knowledgeable and articulate. He’s also very direct in what he says and how he says it.

I attended two Steyer events in South Carolina on the day before the primary: a 9 a.m. event at a fancy dining room in a Sumter restaurant and a “Get Out the Vote” evening rally at Allen University in Columbia. Both these events reflected that there was no shortage of money in the billionaire Steyer’s campaign. At the first event, besides the delicious fresh orange juice available to anyone who wanted it, Steyer T-shirts, cloth bags, string back-packs, campaign posters and the like were available for the taking. (At all other candidates’ events, T-shirts, caps, and other such apparel were sold by apparently independent vendors.) At the evening event, there was a delicious, upscale buffet of food and non-alcoholic drinks available in the lobby outside the hall in which various musical performers as well as candidate Tom Steyer himself spoke and performed.

At the morning event, Steyer was asked by an apparently undecided voter why he should vote for Steyer over Biden and Sanders. Steyer dismissed Biden’s moderate policy positions as suggesting that all of America’s problems “just needed a tweak.” He said that Sanders has done us a service by forcefully calling attention to the many serious problems in the U.S. today. But while Steyer said that Bernie’s problem list was essentially the same as his, he and Bernie differ on solutions. For Steyer, the answer is not “government takeover of the economy.” Instead, we need to break down the power of corporations by smart and efficient government regulation. For example, Steyer asserted that governments are notoriously inefficient and inept at providing electricity; in turn, that important task should be left to private companies well-regulated by government with particular attention to environmental concerns. Health care insurance was another topic on which Steyer said he differed from Sanders: Steyer does not support Medicare for all, but instead prefers the “public option” alternative.

That evening I attended the Steyer “Get Out the Vote” rally at Allen University, a historically black university in Columbia. I’ve already mentioned the plentiful and good food and drink. To the crowd (200?) composed mostly of African American college students, Steyer gave an energetic summary of his core environmental, economic, racial justice triad. He asserted that he is uniquely qualified to beat Donald Trump and achieve all three kinds of justice. He is the best qualified to beat Trump, he said, because of all the Democratic candidates, he can best expose the president as a fraud and business failure because of Steyer’s own undeniable track record of business success.

Steyer moved to the conclusion of his brief “Get Out the Vote” speech by urging the audience not only to vote for him the next day but also to get others to do likewise. Finally he asked for one last thing — that the audience repeat after him the following: “I believe — repeat after me, please; ... I believe that ... —repeat after me, please ... I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”

I had seen candidate Steyer enthusiastically lead this “I believe ...” refrain at his campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, on the morning of the Feb. 3 caucuses. And I had seen and heard the 50 to 75 mostly youthful canvassers there that day enthusiastically echo their candidate’s refrain. In South Carolina the same exercise seemed to fall a bit flat among the assembled crowd of Allen University students.

The next evening, after South Carolina primary results were announced, Tom Steyer ended his candidacy for president of the United States.