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South Carolina Primary Lookahead

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program today by looking ahead to the South Carolina primary next weekend. Senator Bernie Sanders must be considered the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after the Nevada caucuses wrapped up last night with a big win for the Vermont senator. We'll be broadcasting from South Carolina next weekend, so we're going to take a few minutes now to look over the political landscape there.

For this, we've called H. Gibbs Knotts. He is a professor at the College of Charleston and the co-author with Jordan Ragusa of the book "First In The South: Why South Carolina's Presidential Primary Matters." There is no Republican presidential primary in South Carolina this year, so we asked him to focus on the Democratic primary.

H GIBBS KNOTTS: On the Democratic side, the South Carolina primary is important because it provides a critical counterbalance to Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa and New Hampshire are states that don't have a lot of diversity. In South Carolina, 61% of voters in the 2016 Democratic primary were African American. It's really the first opportunity for African American voters to weigh in in who becomes the Democratic nominee. And, of course, African American voters are critical to the Democratic Party nationally.

M MARTIN: As well as having racial diversity, South Carolina's electorate is a little more moderate.

KNOTTS: Just as one example, South Carolina Democratic voters are much more likely to attend church, identify as religious. And that's kind of an interesting added element to the early states.

M MARTIN: For months, it looked as though black voters in South Carolina were favoring former Vice President Joe Biden. But recent polls have shown a swell in interest for one candidate who's mostly been in the background - the billionaire activist Tom Steyer.

KNOTTS: He has really done well in recent polls. He's inundated the airwaves. You can't launch a YouTube video without seeing Tom Steyer. You can't go check your mail at your mailbox without seeing another flyer from Tom Steyer. And so he's spent a lot of money in the state. But he's also got people on the ground. They're out knocking on doors. And he's gotten some really key endorsements. And so he's chipped away at Biden's lead.

M MARTIN: And then there's front-runner Bernie Sanders.

KNOTTS: Bernie Sanders has kind of been Mr. Steady. I mean, he got 25% back in 2016, and, you know, I've seen some polling where he could be around 20% this time. People are sticking with him. And, you know, for Bernie Sanders to win South Carolina - in some ways, I would have never thought that because so many of the other candidates are taking away their chunk of vote. It could be that the Sanders supporters could propel him to a victory or at least a second-place finish in South Carolina.

M MARTIN: And we will be there in South Carolina to bring you the results. That was H. Gibbs Knotts, co-author of the book "First In The South: Why South Carolina's Presidential Primary Matters."

And we're going to stay in South Carolina for a moment to check in on something going on on the Republican side of the aisle. As we just mentioned, the Republican primary has been canceled this year. But a group of GOP activists calling themselves Trump 229 decided that wasn't enough to give President Trump a leg up to cross party lines and vote in next week's Democratic primary for Senator Bernie Sanders. Why? They think it will help President Trump to run against somebody with what they call extremely socialist views.

Karen Martin is one of the founders of Trump 229. She's also the organizer of the Spartanburg Tea Party, and she is with us now. Karen Martin thank you so much for joining us.

KAREN MARTIN: Oh, it's great to be here.

M MARTIN: And I do want to mention I don't think we're related, but...

K MARTIN: (Laughter).

M MARTIN: ...We haven't really checked, so just FYI. OK. So I understand that the purpose of this is twofold. First, you think Bernie Sanders would be the president's weakest opponent. But you're also pushing for a closed primary, which is to say the only people who can vote in the primary are those holding the primary, which is obviously not the case now. Why is that a priority for you?

K MARTIN: I'm so glad that you pointed out the importance of closing the primaries because that's really why we started this effort. And if South Carolina had closed primaries, we would not be doing this. It's important to me as an individual voter because anytime that someone who supports a Democrat platform is able to cross over and vote in a Republican primary, that dilutes my vote. I think that the primaries are actually - they're not an election. They're for offering up a nominee to run in a general election against nominees of other parties.

So, for example, if I was in a Baptist church, and we were going to hire a new pastor, we wouldn't ask the Lutherans or the Methodists to be able to vote for our new pastor. And so that's the way I feel about the closed primary system. I think it's just instills integrity in Tea Party politics to close the primaries.

M MARTIN: OK. Well, to - OK, to that end, there's an - I understand that your group is different. There's another campaign in South Carolina called Operation Chaos 2020, which is also encouraging Republican voters to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. But here's my question. I mean, if your candidate is so strong, why do you have to cheat to help him win? I mean, isn't that like Tonya Harding's husband kneecapping Nancy Kerrigan? I mean, why not fight fair and let the chips fall where they may?

K MARTIN: We're absolutely fighting fair, and that's our point. In the rules of South Carolina politics, it is OK, perfectly acceptable, not cheating to go vote in other parties' primary. So we're working within the rules to bring about a change those rules that we don't like.

M MARTIN: Well, another point, though - that, you know, all the experts we've talked to - in fact, we talked to one just yesterday - say that this is kind of the whole purpose of Russian election interference. I mean, even the experts who don't necessarily believe that the Russians were trying to help President Trump all agree that the purpose of their interference is to kind of mess with us. They say that the Russians are not willing to improve their democracy, so they're trying to damage ours. And one of the ways they're trying to do that is by diminishing confidence that people have in these institutions, in our electoral systems.

Now, I assume that you believe yourself to be a patriot. I mean, that's in part why you started getting involved in the Tea Party. Why would you participate in something that is exactly what the Russians would have you do, which is exactly their agenda as well, which is to compromise people's confidence that the system's fair?

K MARTIN: Well, I can't speak for the Russians, but what I think that our organization is doing is instilling more confidence. If I as a Republican vote in a closed primary system, I know that people who only hold the values that I do of my platform are helping me select the nominee and vice-versa. If we had closed primaries in South Carolina, we would not be doing this.

M MARTIN: So before we let you go, how will you know if you've been successful in this effort?

K MARTIN: Good question. A, we've already been successful because for the first time in decades, the Democrat party with the face of Senator Marlon Kimpson has come out publicly and said it is wrong for one party's voters to vote in another party's primary. This never happened in South Carolina.

But the other thing is, we can look at the voter data after the primary next Saturday, and we can see how many people took advantage of this opportunity to put some pressure on South Carolina Democrats to help them close their primary. So we can have those numbers if we go to look at the voter data.

M MARTIN: All right. That's Karen Martin. She's a Tea Party organizer in Spartanburg, S.C., and she's one of the founders of Trump 229. She's encouraging Republicans to cross party lines next week to vote for Senator Bernie Sanders.

Karen Martin, thanks so much for talking to us.

K MARTIN: Thank you so much for allowing us this opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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