In this tiny, rural town, a young staffer from the Barack Obama campaign sat Wednesday in a small office canvassing voters. She had only a desk, a chair, a laptop, two phones, some brochures and a map of Allendale County.
It's a barebones operation, but neither of Obama’s major rivals, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, even has an office in this county, which has the second smallest population in the state.
“Our strategy from the start was to run a 46-county strategy,” said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s South Carolina field director. “There are lots of voters there who have never had a field organizer in their town, even for a state senate campaign.”
The 90-minute drive from Allendale to Hilton Head on the Atlantic Coast illustrates the two different electorates to which the Democratic contenders must appeal to win Saturday’s primary.
One electorate is made up of more affluent, out-of-state Democrats who have emigrated to Hilton Head and other places along coast over the past 20 years; another electorate is composed of native-born Carolinians who populate tiny rural towns like Allendale.
Presidential candidate John Kerry won 71 percent of the vote in Allendale County in 2004, giving it the distinction of being South Carolina’s most Democratic county in percentage terms. (Statewide, Kerry won only 41 percent of the vote.)
The county is struggling economically. The downtown has a BP gas station, a Hardee’s fast-food eatery, a few churches, and little else.
Only one of the Democratic contenders, John Edwards, has stopped in Allendale during the campaign. He made a tour of the town back in April when he took part in the MSNBC debate in Orangeburg, a bigger town 45 miles northeast.
That visit earned Edwards the support of Air Force veteran Mark Lott. “He actually took the time to visit this community,” said Lott. “He had his wife with him; they seemed to be very down-to-earth common people. The day I met him, my mind was made up.”
Lott added, referring to Elizabeth Edwards being treated for cancer, “What really got me is that with her health condition most people would probably be at home resting; it means a lot that even with her health condition, they are concerned about other people as well as themselves.”
Of the skirmishing between the Obama and Clinton campaigns over the past two weeks, Lott said, “I could care less…. This media hype, it’s sad.”
He added, “It’s sad that Hillary and Barack are running against each other. I just wish they would have thought that thing out and one of them would have backed out — and it may hurt the Democrats.”
Another lifelong resident of Allendale, James Everett, a member of the town council, said, “I like what Barack Obama stands for.” Everett decries “all this mud slinging,” including the rumor that Obama is Muslim. “If I found out he was not a Christian, I would not vote for him,” Everett said.
A problem with Bill Clinton
Of Hillary Clinton, he said, “I don’t care for the baggage she carries — her husband. I think he did well when he was in there (as president). I don’t think he needs to be behind her trying to run the thing again.”
Obama, he said, “has a stable family with no history of what went on with her family. That’s a stigma not on her (Hillary Clinton), but on him (Bill Clinton).”
Everett said he is wavering between voting for Obama and voting for Edwards. But he was impressed that after he met Obama briefly in Myrtle Beach six months ago and told him – through one of his aides – that “Allendale was in dire need,” Obama himself called later on the phone to hear his concerns.
Obama supporter DeWayne Ennis, the town administrator of Allendale, said Obama “seems to be someone who is little bit more down to earth, relatively new to the political arena, not weighed on heavily by different lobbyists.”
Ennis wants the new president to make it easier for Allendale to get federal aid.
For HUD housing money or other federal grant programs, Ennis said, “If you’re in a poor area like here, you’ve got to put up matching funds. A lot of times those matching funds are every hard to come by. Here in Allendale we qualify for just about every kind of federal grant you can imagine, however, when you have to put in that 10 to 15 percent match to it, sometimes you can apply for only one at a time.”
Allendale County’s population is 71 percent African-American; only nine percent of its residents have a B.A. degree or better, and one-third of its families are below the federal poverty level, according to the Census.
In contrast, Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head Island and adjacent mainland developments, is 71 percent white. One-third of the county’s population has a B.A. degree or better, and only eight percent of the families are below the poverty line.
As you drive toward Hilton Head, you see new Porsche, BMW, and Hyundai dealerships and carefully groomed golf communities.
In Allendale, you can enjoy a chocolate milk shake and a Monster Thickburger at the Hardee’s; in Hilton Head, at the Little Thai Too restaurant, you can have pla panang and tom kha gai and a glass of fume blanc.
In the 2004 election, Beaufort County was Bush Country, giving 60 percent of its votes to President Bush, but that still left 21,000 people voting for Kerry. Fewer than that will vote in Saturday’s primary, but 10,000 or even 5,000 votes can’t be dismissed.
Hillary Clinton had a well-received visit to Beaufort County last August; Obama will be campaigning in the city of Beaufort on Thursday afternoon.
While there are plenty of native-born Democrats in Beaufort County, many of them are from out-of-state areas like New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. When they moved, they brought their Democratic voting habits with them.
The county's population is two-thirds bigger today than it was in 1990, thanks in large part to Yankee migration.
Allan Yard, a retired pharmaceutical industry executive who moved to the Hilton Head area from New Jersey in 1993, said he had voted by absentee ballot for Edwards.
“I like his populist views and he’s been very specific; his medical plan includes people who are currently uninsured, I like that. And I like his position on not taking money from lobbyists. His philosophy about corporate influence is one that resonates with me.”
Yard was a Joe Biden supporter before the Delaware senator dropped out of the presidential race. Biden, he said, “Was smart on the issues and he had the kind of background and experience that a president should have going into that office in the current world situation. I’m not sure Obama has that.”
He said he like Hillary Clinton very much, but he worries that she’ll be too big a target for “scurrilous attacks”
Unlike the Democrats in Allendale who look to the next president to remedy their county’s urgent economic needs, Yard said, “One of the major issues for Hilton Head and South Carolina is the environment. Part of that is the Savannah River Nuclear Plant. We’re obviously concerned with the way that nuclear material is handled. Nobody wants to see it get into the Savannah River from which we get some of our water.”
Although Yard has already cast his lot with Edwards, he’s exactly the kind of affluent, educated Democrat that gave Obama strong support in New Hampshire. Obama’s performance among both low-income rural voters and the more affluent émigrés will be worth scrutinizing on Saturday when the votes are counted.