CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two days before the Republican primary, life here seems — surprisingly — to be carrying on as normal. That is, except for the rain: that overcast drear that Carolinians are facing as they almost never do. And the passers-by, however politically unengaged they appear, can talk politics for hours, like the security guard who spent 30 minutes Thursday expounding on why she was undecided.
But something is already decided in the Palmetto State: Youth will matter tomorrow.
With hours left before the Republican primary in South Carolina, the George Street Observer’s political coverage was in full swing.
As the student newspaper for the College of Charleston, the Observer has enjoyed exclusive access to the presidential hopefuls during their appearances at the college’s Bully Pulpit Series.
Since every vote matters, candidates don’t, really, have a choice but to chat.
The Bully Pulpit, sponsored by the Communication Department, is intended to serve as a forum for candidates to discuss the nature of presidential power and communication in the modern era. Past participants have included Barack Obama, John McCain and Ron Paul.
“They would move the candidate to a second location, and just the school media would be present,” Observer Editor in Chief Sam Tyson said. “We’re reporting on it more because we have more access than we would normally, and we have more people reading the paper that want to read about the experiences.”
Despite Paul’s and McCain’s appearances in the College of Charleston, some reporters interviewed Thursday were skeptical of the GOP’s ability to attract the youth vote.
“I think it’s almost like the nature of being a Republican,” Reuters photographer Kevin Fogarty said. “They know their target audience is older, more conservative white people. I think they just don’t know how to do it.”
“Huckabee is the only one really trying to get the youth vote and [the votes of] people who have never voted,” he added.
The lack of a clear front-runner in the Republican primary has decreased the importance of securing momentum from early primary victories, throwing the South Carolina race into disarray. The resulting uncertainty led some presidential hopefuls, such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, to largely abandon the state for more favorable battlegrounds while encouraging others like Paul and McCain to campaign harder in non-traditional Republican venues, including liberal-arts colleges such as the College of Charleston.
As a result, traditional local media has had to scramble to cover impromptu events and blitz campaigns, leading to more opportunities for student newspapers in the media extravaganza that is presidential primary season.
“It’s tough to know from one day to the next what news there’s going to be that we can cover locally,” explained Robert Behre, the political beat reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier. “Candidates and campaigns only announce their schedules 24 or 48 hours in advance.”
But for reporters — whether 10 years old or 100 — the question is less where and when to cover and more a matter of what.
The candidates’ changing schedules, for instance, prevented the Post and Courier from providing the extensive political coverage the paper is accustomed to doing, prompting some long-time subscribers to send in strongly worded complaints. One reader questioned why the newspaper continued to ignore Paul in the closely contested primary.
“If Ron Paul would come here, I would cover him,” he said. “He’s definitely got a hardcore base of supporters. The tricky thing is that, as things get closer and more and more stuff happens, to some extent we’re adding reporters.”
Explained Behre: “Mostly we’re just hitting the high points and not covering the things we may have covered in Christmas.”
For Post and Courier Special Features Editor Doug Pardue, the social impact of the primaries on the black community is currently under-covered.
“To me, the most significant issues are the underlying stories that drive people to vote one way or the other,” Pardue said. “One of the more interesting things in this state is the interesting choice for the black communities to go for either Clinton or Obama. You have the wife of the first black president running and the first real black candidate running.”
Like New Haven, Charleston is home to a large black population that accounts for more than 30 percent of the city’s total inhabitants. In addition, the black population is substantially underrepresented in the area’s flagship university. Although 31 percent of the city is black, only 8 percent of the College of Charleston’s students are black. In comparison, the 2000 census reported that 37 percent of New Haven was black, compared to 8 percent of Yale’s student body.
The noticeable discrepancy between college and city has increased the saliency of race in the primary, particularly in downtown Charleston. Although the black vote in South Carolina is largely split between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the majority of the black students interviewed at the College of Charleston on Thursday said they favor the Illinois senator.
“Most [black student activists] support Obama,” Tyson said. “A lot of the people here look at the Obama candidacy as a chance to be put on the map, so to speak, as far as being listened to as an active voice in politics and society.”
At the College of Charleston, a brightly colored Suburban pulled up to the curb outside of a FedEx/Kinko’s. A sprightly man sprang out.
A veritable mural-sized portrait of Ron Paul was plastered on his vehicle, and his T-shirt sported the phrase, “Who is Ron Paul?” The man was dashing into Kinko’s to make 700 copies of his homemade survey, which he plans to conduct tomorrow himself because he “doesn’t feel he can trust any other poll.”
His name was W.A. Riley, and he has travelled from primary to primary, from Iowa and New Hampshire to South Carolina — and, in the days to come, to New York and New Jersey. He carries papers, pamphlets and informational DVDs.
Soon he was off again to prepare for his one-man protest against the modern statistical method.
While South Carolina certainly isn’t as charged as it has been in primaries in past years — the excitement comes in accents: an enthused supporter here, a thoughtful security guard there — a feeling is still palpable that a win in the state could shift the current deadlock.
As McCain said in a Thursday rally in Columbia, “I can’t tell [people] that buggy-whip factories will be built, nor haberdasheries. But I can tell them that … there’s going to be plenty of jobs and plenty of opportunities for some of the most productive workers in America.”
The question now is for whom those South Carolina adults and students who have signed up to get out the vote will work harder.
-Karan Arakotaram and Nick Bayless