When the Democratic candidates for president came here recently, it seemed that the race to compete for South Carolina’s crucial black vote might be somewhat up for grabs.
Both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont have had high-profile run-ins with the Black Lives Matter movement, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s get-tough-on-crime platform while mayor of Baltimore in the early 2000s has been blamed for alienating the black community there.
Yet interviews here and polls of the state leave no doubt: The African-American vote is Mrs. Clinton’s to lose.
Attendees at the roundtable discussion moderated by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC here at Winthrop University spoke of Clinton’s experience, her tough demeanor, and the perception that she’s the most logical heir to President Obama. But unspoken, say analysts, is the simple fact that she’s a Clinton, and among the black community – in the South, in particular – that goes a long way.
"The joke for so long was that Bill Clinton was the first black president," says Kendra Stewart, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. "Now that's in poor taste because we actually have a black president, but several generations of African Americans still have a fondness for the policies and presidency of Bill Clinton."
Those benefits now fall on his wife, Professor Stewart says.
Results released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling show Clinton leading Senator Sanders 72 to 18 percent among all voters surveyed in South Carolina, but 86 to 11 percent among African-Americans in the state. Mr. O'Malley trailed, with 5 percent of all voters and 1 percent of black voters.
"Those numbers really speak to the trouble Sanders may have in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire that have considerably more diverse primary electorates," the polling firm said, in an accompanying analysis of the polls.
Among the 32 percent of those surveyed who watched the forum, Clinton was judged the winner by 67 percent, ahead of Sanders (16 percent) and O'Malley (6 percent). Among African Americans, Clinton was deemed the winner by 80 percent, followed by Sanders at 13 percent and O'Malley at 4 percent.
Deborah Breedlove, a financial adviser from Columbia, S.C., who was a 2008 delegate for Obama, says Clinton is the logical choice.
“I think a lot of the things that President Obama started will be better-served by Hillary Clinton as the next president. Not just for things important to African-Americans but to everybody because, basically, they’re the same,” she says.
“A level of consciousness has been raised because of the problems with a lot of different things: police brutality, guns, voter registration is being suppressed. All of those different things, I think, South Carolina will be one of the first states [people] will look at in South with a big African-American population,” she adds. “And I think we’re going to come through for” Clinton.
For Ernest Cooper, a retired state employee from New Zion, S.C., Clinton stands out as the candidate who won’t be cowed by Republicans.
He’s worried that Republicans want to rein in Social Security and make Medicare more expensive. But “Hillary’s a person you can’t intimidate,” he says. “Republicans tried that … in that hearing [about Benghazi]. If anyone ever stood their ground against the Republican Party, she stood her ground. That’s what I’m looking for, somebody not afraid to take the heat."
Not everyone is sold yet. State Rep. Joseph Neal, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, S.C., cites many of Sanders’s top issues as crucial to African Americans.
“I’m looking for someone to provide some leadership on issues that are critical to the African-American community, starting with income equity, jobs,” he says. “I remember all too well what happened in 2007 when this economy crashed, in large part due to the fact that Glass-Steagall was gutted in 1999. That allowed the banks and Wall Street to do what they did. I’m looking for someone to restore Glass-Steagall and put some controls on Wall Street and on banking in this country. I’m looking for someone to expand health care. I would love to have single-payer Medicare for everybody.”
On Clinton, he says, “She’s a very nice lady. I don’t have a candidate at the moment. I don’t want any more rhetoric. Show me what you’re going to do.”
Others are complimentary of Sanders, too. Ms. Breedlove, the 2008 Obama delegate, says “I think Bernie Sanders was an excellent candidate. I shouldn’t say was. He is. I like the way they’ve handled themselves – there’s not been the bickering, the back and forth. It shows the Democratic Party is very strong. We can eventually unite.”
As the first primary in the South – and the first primary in a diverse state – South Carolina is an important test for candidates. More than half of the Democratic voters in South Carolina are African Americans.
“You go to Iowa, you go to New Hampshire” – the first two nomination contests for candidates in both parties – “and you don’t see demographics like that,” says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop and director of the school’s statewide political polls. “South Carolina is the litmus test of African Americans.”