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South Carolina's lesson: black, white voters seeing 2016 differently

Modes of thought

Hillary Clinton's big win in the South Carolina primary came from black voters standing against a white-voter rebellion.

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    An audience member holds up her hand to ask a question as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Williamsburg County Recreation Center in Kingstree, S.C., Thursday. Mrs. Clinton won the state primary Saturday.
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Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary Saturday showed dramatically how the widely different views of black and white America are shaping Election 2016.

Until Saturday, Election 2016 was largely about white voters. Working-class white Republicans have transformed Donald Trump’s candidacy from an apparent long shot into a potentially historical repudiation of the party establishment. White liberals, meanwhile, catapulted Bernie Sanders into a virtual dead heat with Mrs. Clinton in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In one stunning swoop, however, black voters in South Carolina have struck a blow for the status quo.

Most obviously, that status quo is the legacy of President Obama. Among South Carolina Democrats who said they wanted the next president to have policies in line with Mr. Obama, Clinton won 81 to 19 percent. And black Americans made up a historically high share of the overall turnout.

Yet Saturday’s vote might also have been connected to a deeper cultural shift. In short, black Americans are more optimistic about America’s future than any other ethnic group, research has shown. That has led them to be the primary force against white voters’ push for a full-blown political revolution.

It is not that black Americans think prejudice and inequality have disappeared; the rise of "Black Lives Matter" rejects that view. Rather, black Americans see their position in America improving relative to their parents, who often faced greater prejudice and lack of opportunity, suggests sociologist Andrew Cherlin in a New York Times opinion article.

That contrasts sharply with the views of many white Americans, who – beset by globalization and the Great Recession – now see the economic security that defined the middle-class America of their parents’ generation disappearing.

“Whites are likely to compare themselves to a reference group that leads them to feel worse off,” Dr. Cherlin writes. “Blacks and Hispanics compare themselves to reference groups that may make them feel better off.”

In that way, the presidential election is emerging as a clash of two different worldviews. In this case, it is the black community that is feeling empowered – at least politically – and the white community that is seeking change.

“National surveys show striking racial and ethnic differences in satisfaction with one’s social standing relative to one’s parents,” Cherlin adds. “Among 25- to 54-year-olds without college degrees, blacks and Hispanics were much more positive than whites....”

Whether or not this optimism was kindled by Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, South Carolina showed signs that the trend could continue beyond the end of his presidency. Indeed, it suggested that it is perhaps Clinton, and not rival Mr. Sanders, who sits atop a Democratic political revolution.

The record-high share of black voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary, together with their 86-to-14-percent backing of her, turned a projected victory into a downright trouncing. Clinton topped Sanders by nearly 50 points.

Obama rode this coalition of voters to victory in 2008 and 2012, using huge margins of support among minorities and, to a lesser degree, women, to offset his Republican opponents’ advantage among white men.

Clinton’s victory Saturday suggests that Obama’s coalition might not be a fleeting phenomenon connected only to him, but the shape of future Democratic politics. If the trend holds true in coming days, it could also point to a new level of black political engagement.

“This is what Democratic voter turnout looks like – these are its outcomes when black voters are convinced of their ability and authority to fundamentally shape American democracy,” writes Jannell Ross of The Washington Post. “It is a result that should begin to crush the popular and often repeated myth that black political behavior in 2008 and 2012 was nothing more than a blip, a fleeting kind of emotion-only engagement inspired by a singular and history-making black candidate.”

Though overall turnout in the South Carolina Democratic primary was down 30 percent from 2008, it was down less among black voters. Blacks made up 6 in 10 voters Saturday, their highest-ever share for a South Carolina Democratic primary, according to Ms. Ross. In 2008, the previous high, 55 percent of voters were black.

The question raised by South Carolina is whether that will be enough. While Democratic turnout has been down from 2008 levels in other states, too, Republican voter turnout is hitting record highs, presumably driven at least in part by Trump. Republican turnout in South Carolina last weekend was up 23 percent from 2012, a record.

This fall’s election could be determined by that gap.

Ross adds: “Saturday's South Carolina primary results indicate how essential each element of the so-called ‘Obama Coalition’ remains for any successful Democrat.” 

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