Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Friday began in earnest what will likely become the toughest slog of her campaign to win the White House: Convince black voters that she deserves President Barack Obama’s mantle.
On paper, Ms. Clinton’s appeal among blacks looks rock-solid, and visits to Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta showed wide-ranging support for the former First Lady and former secretary of State from black leaders, including Civil Rights era icon John Lewis.
But a small group of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters – who upstaged Clinton for nearly 12 minutes during an event at Clark Atlanta University – symbolize Clinton’s challenge in the general election as well as a primary contest that will feature Southern voters early and often starting this winter. It was the first time BLM protesters had interrupted a Clinton event – as they have interrupted other candidates – and it came at a gala designed to showcase Clinton’s solid support in the black community.
Clinton’s decision to step up the campaign in the South now suggests that the campaign is heeding the words of political analyst Charles Ellison, who wrote in April that, “of the multiple pathways to a win that will bedevil [Clinton’s] campaign, none may be as vexing as the black vote.”
To win the presidency, some analysts say, Clinton has to not only get 90 percent of the black vote – which she has not yet clinched, polls say – but also inspire at least some of the excitement that boosted Mr. Obama to two election victories. Moreover, YouGov polls from earlier this year showed several Republican candidates who have earned favorable ratings from 25 percent of black voters.
Clinton’s concerns are immediate. The first Southern primary state of South Carolina (on Feb. 27) is taking on increasing importance, as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pulled within striking distance of Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire. If Sanders pulls off victories in those largely-white states, the pressure on Clinton to win South Carolina will be immense.
Pollsters say black voters are likely to account for one in five Democratic votes, and that support will become critical in Southern states like South Carolina, where half of all ballot box Democrats are black, as well as Georgia, which has moved up its primary to March in order to be more influential in picking the nominees for president.
To be sure, there’s deep affinity between US blacks and the Clintons. President Bill Clinton has long been heralded as “America’s first black president,” given the ease at which he related to the black community. But there’s also some bad blood lingering between Obama and Clinton stemming from a comment by Mr. Clinton during the 2008 campaign that Obama’s decisive victory over Ms. Clinton in South Carolina that year was as unimportant as Jesse Jackson taking the state in the 1984 primary.
At the same time, black voters, polls suggest, are taking a harder look at Mr. Sanders, as well. Though he upset some in the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this fall, Sanders has a long history of civil rights activism, including getting arrested in Chicago in the 1960s while protesting against school segregation. And analysts say that, although he is far behind Clinton in organizing a Southern campaign, black voters are far from decided on Clinton.
Indeed, a Suffolk University/USA Today poll in early October showed Clinton’s support plummeting by 31 percent among black voters. (The poll had an unusually large 10 percent margin of error.)
Last week, Mr. Sanders, in an interview with Ebony, acknowledged that he struggles to appeal to black voters. “Yes, it’s true — I’m from a state that is overwhelmingly white,” he said. “I am also aware that I am running against someone whose husband is very popular in the African American community,” Sanders added, referring to former President Bill Clinton.
But “the proposals that I talk about are actually more relevant to the black community,” he said, citing his calls for criminal justice reform and better youth education.
Clinton said on Friday that her platform also includes measures that directly aimed at helping the black community, including ending racial profiling by police and reforming the criminal justice system to reduce its impacts on the black community.
Her history on that topic has looked shaky, however. Clinton largely backed incarceration policies signed by her husband in the 1990s. Those policies have been credited at least in part for putting millions of nonviolent drug offenders in prison, and nearly tripling the US prison population in the span of two decades.
While those policies helped make many black neighborhoods safer, black Americans also took the brunt of the impact.
Clinton returned to that theme on Friday, but with a different spin. “We have to end the era of mass incarceration,” she said.
Her Southern campaign swing is set to continue Saturday in Charleston, S.C.