The crowd of poll workers at Sharpton's campaign office was bigger than any I had seen at his rallies. So I started asking questions. A tall, toothless man with gray hair and a week's worth of gray stubble over a sallow complexion explained that he and others had been approached the night before at a homeless shelter and promised $75 each for a day's work handing out Sharpton pamphlets. Another man nearby said the same. They were a little disgruntled to learn on arriving that the amount would be only $50, but they were undeterred.
"Are you Sharpton supporters?" I asked.
Both men rolled their eyes and laughed. "Hey, fifty bucks for ten hours, that's five bucks an hour," the toothless man said. "I'd hand out pamphlets for anybody for five bucks an hour. That'll buy me cigarettes and a good meal."
"I got no political interests," the second man said.
With the others was a group of young women from Benedict College, where Sharpton had visited the previous Friday. They, too, had been promised $50 to $75 for the day. One of them said that the candidate "came to our school and ... spoke about issues important to the black community"—but clearly the money was the draw. Eddie Harris, the filmmaker who is part of Sharpton's traveling entourage, was shuttling cars full of these workers out to various districts around the city.
It didn't look good. Sharpton had been bragging about his "grassroots" strategy in this state for months, about the enthusiastic support he had been finding here, especially in black communities, and this was supposed to be the one place where he had a measure of organization. "I fully expect to win primaries in the coming weeks," he had said in the South Carolina primary debate, just days earlier. There was little evidence of momentum.
The night before, he had held an impressive gospel rally at Reid Chapel AME, a simple clapboard house of worship with a congregation of about five hundred. The church was packed and rocking. The church's own Voices of Unity choir put on a magnificent performance, swaying, clapping, and electrifying the overflow audience with cascading, rhythmic choruses of infectious hymns. It was followed by the University of South Carolina's Touch of Faith choir, and then by the main attraction, the gospel singing star John P. Kee. Kee was the man most people had come to see, so Sharpton took over before bringing him out.
"We decided to end this campaign right where we started, in church, the black church in South Carolina," he said, rocking back and forth. "Tomorrow we're going to make history! I believe in taking the possible out of the impossible. I started this morning at a slave market in Charleston, and I stood there in a place where a few hundred years ago black men stood to be assessed as slaves, and this morning I stood there to be assessed as a candidate for President of the United States. We're going from property to President!"
"Amen," said a voice in the congregation.
"Disgrace to Amazing Grace!"
"You tell it!"
"They can't poll us because they can't find us. To just vote for who they tell you to vote for is to waste your vote! ... You know, I've been black all my life. I've been black three times. I've been a black baby, I've been a black boy, and now I'm a black man! I've been black three times!"
And on he went, warmly received. Then Sharpton asked for a show of hands. "How many of you all are going to vote tomorrow?"
About two thirds of the hands in the audience went up.
"Okay, now how many of you are going to vote for me?"
A much smaller number of hands went up, about a third of the earlier showing.
"Be honest now," Sharpton said.
It looked to me as though the congregation was being painfully honest. A clipboard was being passed around the church for people to sign up to work the polls the next day. When it had made the trip down every pew, two names were on it. Two.
"I was contacted about setting all that up only a week ago," said the church's pastor, the Reverend James R. Glover. "I think most people came out to hear the music."
The next evening, after the polls closed, I sat with Sharpton's South Carolina public-information coordinator, Cheryl Washington, at the bar of the Sheraton Inn during Sharpton's "victory" party, waiting for the early returns. Washington seemed tired, and was disappointed that the band that was supposed to come had not showed up. Most of the people at the party were reporters. A few camera crews were setting up in one corner for the ritual postprimary speech. The large room was mostly empty.
"There really was just a few of us volunteering," she said. "I would love to get a job at the U.S. Capitol. I did an internship there with Congressman [James] Clyburn's office, and worked there for a few years. I'm impressed with the way Reverend Sharpton handles the press. They are always trying to trip him up and they can't ever do it."
The returns were not good. Sharpton had won only nine percent of the vote. The estimate on various TV channels kept swaying between nine percent and 10 percent, but eventually settled down to the single digit. John Edwards had won 45 percent of the vote, John Kerry 30 percent. Sharpton's hopes—that white candidates would split the white vote at least four ways and he would carry half of the black vote, or more—were dashed. I thought of the paltry show of hands at the church the night before. That crowd had demonstrated about the same level of support as South Carolina's blacks as a whole. Sharpton had received only one of every five votes cast by African-Americans. He had won exactly one of South Carolina's fifty-five delegates. It wasn't just a loss—it was a repudiation.
I called up Lloyd Hart on Martha's Vineyard.
"This is a great victory for us!" he said. Then he said some other things, but I confess I was too astonished to take notes. (Hart abruptly switched his support to Ralph Nader three weeks later.)
The defeat was so resounding that the New York papers speculated about Sharpton's having hurt his standing as a black power broker in the city—something no one (certainly not Sharpton) would have imagined when he dreamed up this campaign. He had been fond of saying to black audiences, "We can't lose!" Well, maybe they couldn't lose, but he could. The revelations of his ties to Stone broke a week later, and people all over the country began questioning his motives.
In the following weeks Lieberman, Clark, and Dean bowed out. By the end of the month the Democratic race was a contest between Kerry and Edwards, with Sharpton and Kucinich flapping like scraps of colorful cloth on the tail of their kite. The FEC had still not awarded Sharpton any matching funds (there were suspicions about some of the reported donations), and the campaign was reportedly $500,000 in debt. Sharpton had still not paid Watkins or Gray. Less than a month earlier he had outlined for me his strategy of arriving at Super Tuesday, March 2, with "as many delegates or more than the front-runner." When Super Tuesday rolled around, he had just sixteen delegates, compared with 754 for John Kerry and 220 for John Edwards. Even under the terms Sharpton had set for himself, South Carolina was the end.
Or so it seemed. The crowd at the Sheraton Inn victory bash never filled out that night. Sharpton made his appearance in time for the eleven o'clock news, strutting in with his usual small entourage, resplendent, smiling, light gleaming off the sheen of his slicked-back hair. He squared himself in front of the array of microphones, and to the small clump of reporters and cameras declared, "Tonight we started a movement that will transform the Democratic Party ... This is an astonishing boost in the arm for the Sharpton campaign."