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Rep. Clyburn makes case for South Carolina kicking off 2024 Democratic primary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Iowa caucuses have historically kicked off the presidential primary process, with the New Hampshire primary following closely behind. But come 2024, that schedule seems to be getting a shake-up, at least for the Democrats. This past week, the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee approved a proposal to make South Carolina the first to vote in the Democratic presidential primaries. The plan, if approved by the full DNC, would also elevate Nevada, Georgia and Michigan's primaries in the hopes of giving a more diverse Democratic electorate an earlier say in the process.

The proposal has been backed by none other than President Biden, whose South Carolina primary win in 2020 helped push him to the head of the pack of Democratic contenders. And it came as a surprise to many leading Democrats who had settled on Nevada to go first. Those surprised party leaders include South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who is with us now. Mr. Clyburn, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JIM CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: To start us off, I read that President Biden personally called you to tell you he was going to propose making South Carolina the first state in the primary lineup. Do you mind telling us, like, what was the conversation like? And what was your reaction?

CLYBURN: Well, I was quite surprised. Several months ago, I made my interest in South Carolina remaining in the pre-primary window known. We've been there ever since we created it, and we've had some tremendous successes with it. You just go back through all of the contests we've had, and the winners of the South Carolina primary have gone on to be winners in the general. When people do well in a state like South Carolina, where you have such a diverse makeup of people, have a high percentage of African American voters but not an overwhelming percentage - we are around 27% African American - but it's about reflective of the percentage of African Americans that vote for Democrats.

So when you look at that, it's a prime laboratory for a primary. And I think that's why on both sides of the aisle, McCain was doing great in his campaign for president until he got to South Carolina. George W. Bush beat him in South Carolina, went on to become a two-term president. So there's something about the makeup of that state. And I can tell you what it is. If (inaudible) of our area is agriculture. You go to the Piedmont area - it's manufacturing. You go to the Midlands - it's the educational institutions. The Lowcountry - tourism. Then you look at what we like to call the defense industry. It is what this country is all about, and if someone were to come in there, as they have in the past, do well there, they'll go on to do well in the general.

MARTIN: Well, and of course, there are those who believe, with evidence, that your endorsement of Biden ahead of South Carolina's primary really helped him reset his campaign after a rocky start and ultimately win the nomination. And - well, so - and we've just heard you say that you think that South Carolina has been a better proving ground for presidential candidates who go on to win the White House for all the reasons you decided - it's economically diverse. It's more racially diverse. But - it has to be said - South Carolina is not competitive for Democrats in the general election, and it hasn't been for years, unlike New Hampshire, for example. So why do you still say that South Carolina should be first?

CLYBURN: You look at the Democratic electorate in the general election. All of those people up in Philadelphia, up in New York, up in Detroit, they came from the South. The majority of African Americans in this country still live in the South. And I think that that's where we make the big mistake. What's going on now? Everybody looking at Georgia. Georgia is in the South. It was Georgia that gave the Democrats their majority in the Senate. That's nothing to be sneezed at.

MARTIN: The traditional argument for why Iowa and New Hampshire think they should be first is that they're smaller states. This is an opportunity for more what they call retail campaign experience. Like, unlike a bigger state, you don't have to rely on advertising to make your case. You can actually kind of connect with people. And I think that's also one of the arguments for South Carolina. Here's one of the arguments for Nevada. It has a growing Latino population, and this is a group that's going to be increasingly important, both to Democrats and Republicans, and that Nevada would actually make a better proving ground for candidates for the general election. What do you say to that argument?

CLYBURN: Well, South Carolina went fourth last time, the time before that and the time before that. And South Carolina had a significant influence in the outcome. So I don't think South Carolina has to go first. That's the president's choice. I never asked for it to be first. I just ask to stay in the window. Nevada was third before. They're moving up to second. That's promoting Nevada. That's not demoting Nevada. So I just don't think those arguments hold water.

MARTIN: The Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is making the argument that moving Iowa later in the schedule would, quote, "further alienate rural Americans from the Democratic Party." Well, he called it the Democrat Party. I'll edit slightly. What about the substance of his argument?

CLYBURN: Well, his substance is way off. South Carolina - vast majority of the South is still rural. I represent rural communities, and they're rural African Americans. So his idea about rural is what a lot of people's idea seems to be about rural. And I get insulted when people tell me when you're talking about the South, you're talking about white people. No. The vast majority of Black people in this country still live in the South.

MARTIN: Well, the proposal will be voted on in February, I think, right? So do you think that there will be further lobbying around this issue until then, or do you think it's basically a settled issue now and people should start packing their bags for South Carolina?

CLYBURN: No, it's not settled. There'll be a lot of debates around this because a lot of states have passed laws to just do what they're going to do, irrespective of what the parties do. And these people are not interested in the party. What I would say to Democrats - think about whether or not you want to be first or second or third or whether you want to win in November. If winning doesn't matter to you so long as you're first, then I'd like to think you're not interested in this party. If you've got a process that has been so successful in getting the vast majority of the American people to vote for you, why would you mess up that process? And that's for this half of the year. Not New Hampshire, not Iowa but the voters of South Carolina have produced what has been successful for the Democratic Party going forward. It's all there.

MARTIN: That is House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Congressman Clyburn, thank you so much for joining us and sharing these insights with us.

CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.