South Carolina Hands Democrats A Challenge: Running In A Strong Job Market South Carolina and other early states have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. That means presidential candidates are making some nuanced economic messages
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South Carolina Hands Democrats A Challenge: Running In A Strong Job Market

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South Carolina Hands Democrats A Challenge: Running In A Strong Job Market

South Carolina Hands Democrats A Challenge: Running In A Strong Job Market

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Despite coronavirus fears that rocked the stock market, the economy overall still appears strong. The job market in particular looks good in South Carolina, where the Democratic primary is held today. With the state's unemployment rate at a low 2.3%, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports that presidential candidates are pitching policies geared toward job quality instead of job quantity.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The CBS News Democratic debate this week started with a question for Bernie Sanders, but it's a question any nominee will have to wrestle with.

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NORAH O'DONNELL: We haven't had a national unemployment rate this low for this long in 50 years. How will you convince voters that a democratic socialist can do better than President Trump with the economy?

KURTZLEBEN: Of course, the other candidates don't call themselves Democratic socialists. But Donald Trump is running for reelection amid strong indicators, something he likes to trumpet at his rallies, like in Las Vegas last week.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Since my election, over 125,000 new jobs have been created right here in Nevada.

KURTZLEBEN: The early primary states are a test of Democrats' economic messages. South Carolina has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, along with two other states. New Hampshire and Iowa also have among the lowest rates. Sanders, for his part, has been standing by an economic pitch he has made for years. Here he was at that debate.

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BERNIE SANDERS: You're right. The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires. But you know what? For the ordinary American, things are not so good.

KURTZLEBEN: And there is some evidence for this. Workers are not sharing in growth nearly as much as they used to. More of that new income has gone to shareholders, for example. To Jessica Bright, South Carolina state director for Sanders, the strong economy may provide some space to argue for sweeping changes.

JESSICA BRIGHT: You can kind of see the structure and see the opportunity. So definitely this time - the time is right to change - structurally change the systems that we're going up against.

KURTZLEBEN: For a lot of Democrats, concerns about the economy aren't about their own situations but about others. That's the case for South Carolina voter Kenneth McCaster (ph).

KENNETH MCCASTER: I would say for me, you know - I work three to four jobs, so, you know, the economy is fine for me. But there's some other people that are actually suffering because of the economy.

KURTZLEBEN: But he hits on a major part of many Democrats' economic messages in 2020. As Sanders tweeted this week, it is not acceptable for Americans to need two to three jobs to put food on the table. Talking about economic change can also mean talking about persistent racial inequities, as businessman Tom Steyer highlighted at the CBS debate.

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TOM STEYER: Every single policy area in the United States has a gigantic subtext of race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

STEYER: We're talking about education. We're talking about criminal justice. We're talking about housing. We're talking about loans.

KURTZLEBEN: Selling an economic message isn't just about policy ideas. It's about showing voters you feel their pain. Lawyer Shireen Carter went to an Elizabeth Warren event ahead of the Iowa caucuses clutching a printout of her student debt total.

SHIREEN CARTER: Two-hundred and eighty-thousand dollars, seventy-four dollars and fifty-eight cents. I printed it out just to show her today. And I think that she'll feel that for me - that it's a burden.

KURTZLEBEN: Some voters, though, want to stick with what works in their eyes. Joyce Delk (ph) who went doorknocking in South Carolina for Biden last week, gives him some credit for today's economy.

JOYCE DELK: I don't care what Trump says now that the economy is doing well. But the economy is still rolling off President Obama's and Joe Biden - what they did when they were in office.

KURTZLEBEN: Given that, some Democrats are hesitant to nominate a self-proclaimed socialist who wants to overhaul entire segments of the economy. And they worry that, especially if the economy remains strong, that kind of a message would at best fall flat with general election voters. There's another argument, though - that we are now in a sort of post-economic election era. That's what political analyst Charlie Cook said at a Washington economic conference this week.

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CHARLIE COOK: Right now the economy is not driving American politics. You don't have unemployment at a 50-year low while, at the same time, you've got a president who has never, ever had a 50% job approval rating in any credible national poll.

KURTZLEBEN: Whatever is motivating voters, though, the economy, for now, underpins President Trump's reelection message. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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