NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — By now, most Democratic presidential candidates have polished their stump speeches. But when they're in South Carolina, they may need to add in a sermon.
In a large and diverse primary field, White House hopefuls are angling to develop relationships with black churches. That's because success in South Carolina, home to the nation's first Southern presidential primary, could come down to connecting with politically influential churchgoing African Americans.
"Candidates recognize that black churches are the places to be seen and heard," said Bobby Donaldson, a professor of civil rights history at the University of South Carolina. "If you're trying to find a captive and captivating audience, then the black church is the perfect place to get your message across."
Some 2020 candidates are already working to build their relationships with this community. Sen. Kamala Harris of California will attend an Easter service on Sunday in Columbia at a church whose pastor is a lawmaker who recently endorsed her campaign. She swung through a fellowship hall in North Charleston earlier this year and visited churches last fall to rally voters ahead of the midterms.
Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at a historic black church in Columbia, and both have held campaign events in fellowship halls at black churches around the state. In the past week, Sanders held a town hall in a black church in Spartanburg with members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke have also visited black churches. And in one of her visits to three Charleston-area black congregations in February, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York gave a sermon of sorts, summoning a fiery cadence that spurred shouts of "Amen!" from the crowd of several hundred.
"I love the fact that your Bibles are under your seat," she told congregants at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist. "When you go on a plane and they say your life preserver is under your seat — OUR life preservers are under our seat!"
Gillibrand said she felt she had been well received, but some observers say such moments can be awkward.
"It seems very, for lack of a better term, inauthentic," said Jalen Elrod, a black voter and first vice chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party. "She'd be better served if she came and said, 'Here's what I'm about. Here's what I'm trying to support.'"
Still, the visits allow candidates to introduce themselves to voters. They can also potentially elevate their standing with voters if they secure an official endorsement from church leaders.
That may be part of Harris' calculus, with her announcement last month of an endorsement from Darrell Jackson. The longtime state senator is also pastor of Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, a Columbia congregation that's seen as among the most influential in the black community. That's where she'll attend Easter services on Sunday.
But Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina political consultant and fifth-generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, notes that an endorsement from a pastor is no guarantee of securing his parishioners' support.
"Just because the pastor endorses doesn't mean the congregation follows," Seawright said. "The sheep don't always follow the shepherd because people have evolved, and they've become more independent in their thought."
While the pathway through the black church is a tricky one to navigate, it's hard to avoid. Jaime Harrison, who chaired the state party in the 2016 presidential cycle and is mulling a challenge to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, said that as candidates get past their introductory visits to South Carolina, voters will be watching their moves carefully.
"You expect people to come and visit your church or come to the local NAACP and be the keynote speaker," said Harrison, also associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Regardless of their approach, Seawright urged white candidates to strive to make authentic connections and develop policy proposals that back up whatever overtures they're making as they visit the state's parishioners.
"People want authenticity, people want genuineness, and they want honesty," Seawright said.