21 Dems Try to Hook 'Fish-Fry' Voters in South Carolina

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Photo Credit: Meg Kinnard/AP/Shutterstock
June 24, 2019
3h ago

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

By Megan Pratz

South Carolinians are serious about their fish. They’re also serious about their politics.

On a balmy (read: hot) summer night in the state capital on Friday, voters flocked to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry. It is, after all, the must-see political event in South Carolina’s political calendar. In a presidential election cycle, it’s also a must-stop for any Democrat on the road to the White House.

For the candidates, it’s worth the trip. Home of the “First in the South” primary, South Carolina is one of the earliest voting states in the primary calendar. With nearly two dozen hopefuls vying for every vote, the signature event of the state’s most prominent Democrat is a great chance to connect with a large number of voters.

The fish fry started in 1992 when Congressman Jim Clyburn wanted to thank his campaign staff and volunteers.

“The first fish fry was held in the parking lot of my campaign headquarters,” Rep. Clyburn explained. “We moved out to a big parking garage, then a bigger parking garage.”

Now held at Columbia’s EdVenture Children’s Museum, this year’s fish fry was the biggest ever. More than seven thousand South Carolinians showed up to eat the fish, enjoy a drink and, of course, hear from all the candidates.

Twenty-one candidates had just minutes to stand out from the pack. Clyburn wants his annual event to make these high-profile politicians more accessible to voters.

“If you depend upon people to do the work to get you elected, you ought to be okay with spending a few minutes with them, letting them know who you are as an ordinary person,” Clyburn said.

With just a few minutes for each candidate, it can be hard to make a splash. But it can be even harder to be a South Carolina voter facing down a primary with nearly two dozen options.

“There are so many Democratic presidential candidates, I really don’t know how I’m going to narrow it down,” said Caitlin Coaxum, a Democratic organizer.

South Carolina voter Noelle Sorich explained that candidates need to focus on messaging.

“When you get to the core of what South Carolinians care about, it’s jobs,” Sorich said.

After a late night of fish, free drinks and festivities, it’s time for the hard work: picking just one person to vote for.

Voter Hank Terrell summed up what the Cheddar Politics team has heard from voters all over the country: it’s all about electability.

“You want somebody for the Democratic nomination that’s going to beat President Donald Trump,” Terrell said.

Democratic frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden echoed that message in his speech to big cheers from the crowd.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can to get your support," Biden said. "But here’s the deal: whoever the Democratic nominee is, we have to stay together and elect a Democrat president.”

At Clyburn’s fish fry, the host had jokes and kind words for every candidate on the stage. But the senior Democrat from the Palmetto State is not ready to hand out his sought-after endorsement.

“It would not be fair for me to get out in front of South Carolina voters or to get between those voters and the candidates that they feel strongly about,” he said.