WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's push to make South Carolina the first major battleground in Democratic presidential primaries has a second big beneficiary: Vice President Kamala Harris.
While Biden figures to reap the most reward from his own plan — putting his best political turf first — party strategists say it also creates a natural advantage for Harris in a future run for the White House.
Harris is the first Black woman ever elected on a national ticket, and Black voters often make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina — with Black women voting in higher numbers than Black men. Even as her favorability numbers have languished far below the break-even point in national polls, her standing has remained strong with Black voters — at 67.4% in the latest YouGov survey of registered voters.
“It sets her up,” said Pete D’Alessandro, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 bid. “I’m thinking Pete Buttigieg is not really happy with this one.”
Buttigieg, who serves as Biden’s Transportation secretary, won Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2020. But he struggled to find support among voters of color in subsequent primaries and dropped out of the contest after Biden’s big win in South Carolina.
“For the vice president, this positions her whenever the Biden presidency is over,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who has advised national party organizations. “She will be perfectly primed to do well coming out of the gate.”
The Biden calendar, approved by a key panel of the Democratic National Committee Friday, would put South Carolina first among a set of five states sanctioned to hold early primaries. It would be followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, then Georgia and finally Michigan. Iowa would be kicked out of both the top spot and the first five.
The new calendar would be “good for the Biden-Harris ticket,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist who urged Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate in 2020.
“The vice president has been, and continues to be, very popular among African American voters and has worked hard and used her platform as vice president to engage and lift up the voices and faces of people who haven’t traditionally been heard from and who now are also front and center in the nominating process,” Finney said.
But there are hurdles for the plan, and, according to some Democratic insiders, caveats to the proposition that it would necessarily help Harris.
The full DNC must still vote on Biden's proposal early next year, and officials in Iowa and New Hampshire say they will hold their contests before other states no matter what penalties the DNC applies to line-jumpers or candidates who campaign in rogue states.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive who some supporters see as a potential presidential candidate, said he expects Iowa to fall by the wayside but the other three states to remain heavily contested in the early stages of future nomination fights.
"I believe people will compete in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and these three primaries will basically be the starting lineup," Khanna said. "It's a good demographic mix of having to appeal to Black voters, white working-class voters and Latino and Asian American voters."
While Biden's recommendation included a provision allowing the DNC to revisit the primary calendar every four years, it could be politically complicated to strip South Carolina of its status once it is granted. It took many years for the Democratic establishment to get behind jettisoning Iowa, despite frequent and harsh criticism over its hallmark caucuses and an electorate that is far more white than the party is nationally.
Still, D'Alessandro, who has spent decades in Iowa watching how the expectations game is played among presidential contenders, said Harris faces a risk if the bar for her success is set too high. A too-slim victory for her in a state perceived to be in her wheelhouse could hurt her in subsequent primaries.
“If we’re going to spend four years talking about how this sets up Kamala Harris and she doesn’t do as well as predicted, it won’t be considered a win,” he said. “Of course, I’d rather be the vice president with the chance to win South Carolina and win it handily.”
Harris spent time in South Carolina visiting college campuses and talking about choice during the midterms. The calendar as a whole could be beneficial for the vice president, who is from California, which borders the state that would follow South Carolina in the nominating process: Nevada.
“The one-two punch of South Carolina and Nevada is a very strong nominating calendar for someone like the vice president," said a Democrat with knowledge of the early calendar process.
One top adviser on a past Democratic presidential campaign said that putting South Carolina first won't stop rivals from running against Harris if she's the incumbent vice president or out of office, adding that the Biden plan is more likely to hurt the party with persuadable voters in general-election battlegrounds than to help it.
“How many Black voters are persuaded that the Democratic Party cares about them because South Carolina goes first? Answer = 0,” the adviser said in a text message. “How many low-income white voters have their beliefs reaffirmed about the Democratic Party not caring about them by the messaging around 'why' South Carolina goes first? Answer = all of them.”
There are reasons to think going first does not necessarily make a state the most influential in the primary process. South Carolina, which provided a springboard for Biden after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, was the fourth state to hold a Democratic primary in 2020.
Jeff Berman, who designed Barack Obama's 2008 strategy for winning delegates to that year's party convention, focused on Michigan when asked about Biden's calendar.
"The selection of Michigan, an industrial battleground state, as the final state in the prewindow will smartly transition the primaries from the earlier smaller states to the sprawling nationwide Super Tuesday," when the most delegates are in play on a single day, Berman said. "It will require the presidential candidates to prove their ability to win this type of state that is so essential to victory in the fall."
South Carolina, one of the most Republican states in the country, isn't competitive at the presidential level in general elections. But backers say its relatively small size, four distinct regions and racially diverse electorate make it ideal as an early testing ground for candidates who hope to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Ideal or not for the party, it stacks up well for Harris, according to Seawright. He pointed to South Carolina’s long tradition with historically Black colleges and universities, “the power and the thrust behind the votes of African American women,” and a state that yearns for a candidate with a message as all being assets for a Harris candidacy.
“South Carolina is also known to be kind to those who’ve been kind to her,” he said. “And Kamala Harris has been a friend of this state for some time now, and I think that whenever it is her opportunity to run for the presidency again that could be beneficial to her."