CHARLESTON, S.C. — Most politicians don’t understand the needs of the East Side, a primarily black neighborhood. But on Wednesday, Demond McElveen had a chance to help explain them to the newest presidential candidate.
Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick spent three hours with McElveen, 46, and about 15 other people at a local nonprofit, then walked around their neighborhood and talked to more residents, who sat outside enjoying sunny 60-degree weather. This historic area, dotted with old oak trees, palmettos, and homes that have been in families for generations, feels forgotten, the people said. Small businesses struggle to stay open, kids get into trouble, longtime residents can’t afford to fix their homes and are displaced.
Nothing will be easy about Patrick’s late quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. But this state and its pivotal primary might offer him a glimmer of hope, and Patrick’s appearance here this week impressed McElveen.
“He has a shot,” McElveen said. “I wouldn’t say to win South Carolina, but I think he has a shot to really get the word out” that he’s a serious contender.
Other candidates have not campaigned as much here as they have in Iowa and New Hampshire, and voters seem more undecided. South Carolina’s primary, the fourth nominating contest in the country, isn’t until Feb. 29, affording Patrick extra days to introduce himself to voters here.
“There’s still plenty of time in South Carolina,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
Patrick is familiar with the state, having campaigned here for Barack Obama in 2008, and two- thirds of Democratic voters in the state are African-American, which provides an opportunity for Massachusetts’ first black governor. South Carolina also does not have the complex caucus system of Iowa and Nevada, and its cheaper media market makes it easier to campaign with less money, something that will matter for Patrick, who launched his bid just last week.
Still, he faces a steep uphill battle here as he does everywhere. Polls show former vice president Joe Biden ahead by 20 percentage points in South Carolina. And the two other black candidates in the race, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have struggled to gain support.
But Patrick’s campaign manager, Abe Rakov, is optimistic.
“Right now in South Carolina, more voters are willing to admit that they’re undecided than the other early states. I still think voters in other states are undecided, too,” he said. “I do see a path in South Carolina, so I think you should expect to see us spending time there.”
The latest South Carolina poll has Biden leading with 33 percent and “undecided” in second, at 18 percent. More voters seem to have made up their minds in New Hampshire, where 13 percent are undecided, and in Iowa, where just 3 percent chose that response.
Patrick made five stops in South Carolina this week, the most in any of the four states he visited on his hectic cross-country swing. His events here were small — usually around a dozen people attended — and he spoke almost entirely to people of color, at restaurants, a historically black college, a co-working space, and around the East Side.
“I learn by experiencing what people’s actual lived experience is, and I lead that way as well,” Patrick said after picking up lunch to go at Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen in Charleston’s East Side, where the specials that day were stewed gizzards, liver and onions, and cabbage.
State Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson went to see Patrick on Tuesday night in Columbia, where he spoke to a group of African-American women at a woman-owned co-working space, then to about 40 members of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina at a local restaurant.
Robertson wove a nature metaphor to illustrate the open status of the race here, describing a frozen pond.
“You step out thinking it’s really frozen and then it cracks,” he said. “And I think that’s the support of candidates here in South Carolina right now.”
This is the first election since 2008 where candidates are campaigning in the black community, mingling with the residents of minority neighborhoods, instead of campaigning at them from the outside, Robertson said. Many of the campaigns this cycle have hired local women of color as senior staff in the state, and they have made an effort to get their candidates into rural parts of the country that national campaigns often overlook.
“That is something that is somewhat different and we really haven’t seen it since 2008. So that makes it an exciting race and it’s up for grabs right now in South Carolina,” he said.
The two go back — Robertson said he drove Patrick around South Carolina in 2008 when he campaigned for Obama.
He cautioned against the assumption that Biden has the state on lockdown due to his strong support among black voters.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is in third place in South Carolina, with 13 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll released this week. Harris, who has visited 14 times so far, and Booker, who has come 12 times, are polling at 3 and 2 percent, respectively, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
And analysts are skeptical of whether Patrick thinks that the fact he is black will win him automatic votes.
“South Carolina voters are much more complex than just going with someone based off of the fact that they look like them,” said Rania Jamison, a political consultant in that state.
Asked about this challenge, Patrick said he heard the word “pragmatic” from people he met in Charleston. He touted his work on implementing a public option for health care in Massachusetts as well as improving schools and reforming the criminal justice system.
“There is a range of professional experience, leadership experience, and life experience that I bring to bear,” he said.
But whether he can secure bigger crowds, politically connected staff, and valuable endorsements is unclear.
Earlier Wednesday, Patrick had breakfast and talked about education with a dozen student leaders from Claflin University and South Carolina State University, two historically black colleges in Orangeburg.
One student asked Patrick about a story she had read that compared him to Obama. He demurred, but not without pointing out that he counts the former president as a longtime friend.
“I’m not trying to be anybody but me,” Patrick said.
Still, Biden has a much stronger connection to the former president, and many in the state’s political establishment are already supporting him.
“Somebody must be telling Deval there’s room here, but I think it’s too little, too late,” said state Senator Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who backs Biden.
In addition to being the vice president of the country’s first African-American president, Biden has been visiting South Carolina for 30 years, Harpootlian said.
And he has been building an operation here for more than six months.
“There’s a difference between optimistic and realistic,” he said of Patrick’s chances.