SUMTER, S.C. — There’s a reason why Cory Booker chose South Carolina for some of his first events as a presidential candidate.
For the New Jersey senator to prevail in the crowded Democratic primary, or even survive beyond the early states, he will almost certainly need a strong showing in the Palmetto State, one of the few where African Americans make up the majority of the Democratic electorate.
That reality was clear as Booker finished his first official campaign swing here Sunday and Monday, visiting a high school and two historically black colleges in rural areas, which often feel overlooked — and stressing a message of unity and uplift aimed to contrast with the division and racial resentment many Democrats believe President Donald Trump has fostered.
In doing so, he frequently addressed racism and discrimination head-on, tackling the thorny issue more prominently and directly than President Barack Obama typically did.
“We have to have presidents that are about healing and bringing people together, about confronting injustice, telling the truth about racism, not participating in racist statements demeaning and degrading people like we’re seeing now from the highest office in the land,” Booker told reporters Monday.
His call frequently resonated with black voters and officials in South Carolina, who repeatedly raised concerns that people with racist beliefs have been emboldened in the last two years.
“Trump has not been the kind of president to try to pull us together, and he’s allowed elements of racism to become more open without a rebuke from the chief government official in this country," said State Rep. J. David Weeks, who represents the Sumter area. “We think there are people now who feel comfortable showing their racism. There’s no shame in the game anymore, so we need a president, we need a leader, who can pull people together and get beyond that.”
He hailed Booker’s message in that regard, and was one of several Democrats who drew a direct comparison between the New Jersey senator and Obama. Introducing Booker at Morris College on Monday morning, Weeks noted that Obama, too, had visited the school during his 2008 run.
Booker’s message, however, wasn’t tailored specifically to South Carolina, and did not hinge entirely on race. Facing largely white audiences in Iowa Friday and Saturday before speaking to predominantly black ones in South Carolina, Booker’s speeches and policy prescriptions were almost identical. The issues raised most urgently by both black and white voters in both states were also unfailingly consistent: health care and public education.
But issues of race and conflict, as well as togetherness, were woven through Booker’s calls for healing. The cornerstone of his appeal is a story about how a white lawyer in New Jersey was inspired by the civil rights movement to help Booker’s family overcome racial discrimination as they tried to buy a house in a New Jersey suburb — a symbol, he argues, of the power of “love.”
“This is our moral moment," he said Sunday in Winnsboro. "This is not about just an election for one office. This is where we are going to redefine and reclaim the spirit of America.”
His ability to win over South Carolina voters could decide his fate in the race for the nomination.
Around 60 percent of the state’s Democratic primary electorate is African American, said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in the state. That has made it a prime focus for both Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), and a potential springboard for whoever wins it next February.
A victory would build momentum heading into Super Tuesday contests three days later, when several other Southern states, including North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee hold their primaries. A flop could bring an early end to Booker’s run.
His campaign has already signaled the importance of African American voters and South Carolina.
He launched his run on the first day of Black History Month and did his first interviews on shows that focus on black and Hispanic audiences. His campaign launch video features images of him speaking and marching at a rally in Columbia on Martin Luther King Day, and the background image on his Twitter account shows Booker at the march, with someone holding a sign behind him that reads, “South Carolina NAACP.”
Booker frequently mentions that he is the only senator who lives in a low-income, inner-city community, and draws parallels between the marginalization of urban areas and rural reaches, where he argued that both poor white and black people are often “disregarded.”
“My whole career has been going to places other people ignore," Booker said in a campaign stop Monday.
And he stressed how some of his signature proposals would help African Americans, including criminal justice reforms aimed at changing laws blamed for discriminatory jail sentences, and savings accounts for newborns, which he said would significantly close the racial “wealth gap.”
Booker and Harris, who has black and Indian American ancestry, are widely expected to battle for the black vote in South Carolina, though supporters of all races were at Booker’s events. Their candidacies have made this contest the first to include two black candidates among the top tier, potentially setting up competition for African American voters in ways not seen before.
In interviews, South Carolina voters frequently listed Booker and Harris as their top two early choices, though most said they were still learning about the candidates and stressed they were not making decisions based strictly on race.
Political insiders also warned not to count out former Vice President Joe Biden if he chooses to run.
“If Joe Biden comes it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Weeks, who is black. “Joe has a track record with us.”
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic chairman who plans to support Biden, said many African Americans he speaks with have one concern that may override any inclination to lean toward Booker or Harris.
“It’s not about identity politics, it’s not about the checking of any boxes except one: Can you beat Donald Trump?” Harpootlian said.
He added that any candidate who hopes to win South Carolina will have to first finish strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire, to show they are viable, much as Obama did in 2008.
New Hampshire, however, presents a daunting challenge, given the presences of neighboring Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.). It’s not likely a coincidence that Iowa and South Carolina hosted Booker’s first official campaign visits, though he plans to go to New Hampshire next weekend.
In South Carolina, he stopped at Winnsboro and Denmark, each with populations around 3,000, before going to Sumter.
Mohammed Jibriel, 26, said his mind was made up after hearing Booker in Winnsboro.
“I’m a Muslim and I’m an immigrant, and I came to this country because I heard about the American promise, and that’s what he was talking about today,” said Jibriel, a biology and public health student at Queens College in Charlotte. His parents, who hold Sudanese passports, missed his undergraduate graduation because of Trump’s ban on travel from several largely Muslim countries, a list that initially included Sudan, Jibriel said.
Kadean Maddix, 27, compared Booker’s oratory and unifying themes to Obama. “I know it’s not enough to make policy, but it matters,” said Maddix, who drove from Charlotte to see Booker.
“If you’re at work and your boss does and says crazy things on the job, you probably will too, and that’s the fear I have for America,” said Gerald Thomas, 63, a retiree who lives in Columbia.
He recalled meeting Booker 19 years ago at a religious retreat.