Clinton Scrambles as Sanders Puts the Black Vote in Play
Policy + Politics

Clinton Scrambles as Sanders Puts the Black Vote in Play

Not so long ago, South Carolina and Nevada, with their large numbers of African-American and Latino voters, were seen as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” to prevent Bernie Sanders’ campaign from sweeping across the country.

Polls repeatedly showed that Clinton would run well in those two states, and benefit from the long-standing bonds that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, forged with blacks and other minorities. But in the wake of Sanders’ dazzling 22-point victory over Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, all bets are off.

Related: How Bernie Sanders Just Shook Up the Democratic Primary. Again

Instead, Clinton may have to scratch and scramble to preserve her base in South Carolina and Nevada, and her campaign takes those states for granted at its peril. The influence of the minority vote in those states is hard to overstate. During the 2008 campaign, 57 percent of the electorate in South Carolina was black, while 30 percent of the electorate in Nevada was black or Hispanic, according to exit polls.

Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from predominantly white Vermont, has proven himself to be a brilliant campaign strategist, fundraiser and all-around opportunist. Already there are reports that he has been flooding the zone in the South Carolina and Nevada with paid campaign staffers and door-knockers and has begun to lock in endorsements from prominent African Americans, including former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, actor Danny Glover and singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

Clinton, meanwhile, has picked up numerous important endorsements from key political figures in South Carolina and received added support on Thursday from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But Clinton and Sanders are still aggressively angling to win the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina’s highly regarded senior Democrat in the House and something of a king-maker in state politics.

And both candidates are wooing the Rev. Al Sharpton, the former civil rights lawyer and cable TV personality, who met privately with Sanders in New York on Wednesday and plans to meet with Clinton next week, ahead of the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary.

Related: Sanders' Landslide Win in New Hampshire Puts Huge Pressure on Clinton

Clinton, the one-time prohibitive favorite to capture the Democratic nomination, has badly stumbled with a campaign message of government experience and competence that hasn’t connected so far with many Democrats, especially women and young people. Now she is struggling to hang on to the support of blacks and Latinos and to demonstrate that she can appeal to a much broader audience than Sanders outside of New England and Iowa.

But that won’t be easy in the hand-to-hand combat expected in the coming days, including the next Democratic presidential debate scheduled for Thursday night in Milwaukee.

Moreover, while Bill Clinton has long enjoyed solid support from minorities (the novelist Toni Morrison once dubbed him “our first black president”), he is suddenly coming under fire from some black intellectuals supporting Sanders. They blame his centrist criminal justice and welfare reforms and balanced budget policies of the mid-1990s for a massive surge in the incarceration and unemployment rates of black Americans.

Related: Madeline Albright Hurts Clinton’s Campaign — but Not for the Reason You Think

Some, including Jealous and the writers Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, say that Hillary Clinton is either responsible or complicit in her husband’s policies while they were in the White House.

“My generation was the first generation raised in the era of mass incarceration,” Jealous told reporters yesterday in New York. “My children are now 3 and 10, and I do not intend for my children to be food for our prisons the way that my brothers and sisters have been. There is no candidate in this race who is fiercer in standing up for those who need allies in the struggle than Bernie Sanders.”

Coates said he intends to vote for Sanders and that his son helped persuade him to do so, during an interview Wednesday with Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now! news program. He added that while he disagrees with Sanders on some issues – including the Vermont senator’s opposition to the U.S. paying African Americans reparations for slavery -- he is more concerned about Hillary Clinton’s positions in the 1990s on federal sentencing guidelines and her connection with Wall Street and corporate interests.

Related: The Clinton Scandal That Still Matters Is Not the One You Think

One big wild card in all of this is President Obama, the nation’s first African American president and still a highly popular and revered figure among South Carolina blacks.  

When Obama told Politico in a lengthy interview last month that his former secretary of state was “wicked smart” and understood the demands of the presidency better than any of her rivals, Obama gave Clinton some bragging rights that may have helped her marginally in her narrow win over Sanders in the Iowa caucuses.

After spending much of last year holding the president at arms’ length while she charted a course independent of the Obama administration, Clinton more recently has fully embraced Obama and freely suggests that her election in November would assure the perpetuation of the president’s legacy on economic, health care and foreign policy matters.

Sanders, by contrast, has vowed to take the country in a very different direction, including replacing Obamacare with a single-payer, national health insurance program, cracking down on Wall Street executives, raising taxes on wealthy Americans and businesses, and pulling back on U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

Obama has vowed to keep his own counsel and stay out of the Democratic presidential primary contest so that he doesn’t tip the balance one way or another. But if he truly wants to see Clinton snare the nomination this summer, he may have to “inadvertently” signal to South Carolina blacks that the former first lady and New York senator is his top choice for president.

“Hillary Clinton needs a decisive victory in South Carolina and probably Nevada too,” Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said in an email Thursday. “If her black and Hispanic support becomes wobbly, it will be up to President Obama to intervene, whether he wants to or not. Obama knows that Clinton is the realistic choice for Democrats -- and his opportunity to get a legacy-protecting successor.”