In South Carolina primary, young black voters weigh their choice

The Palmetto State primary has the potential to cement former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the front-runner – or rattle the Democratic race to its core. And black voters will be critical to the outcome.

David Becker/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nev., Feb. 14, 2016.

Montoi Dixon knows the old guard says to vote for Hillary. She’s had President Obama’s back, and is a logical successor – and another potential history-maker. And, yeah, he knows the old saw: Bill Clinton, her husband, was America’s unofficial first black president.  

But in part because his elders are telling him to vote one way, Mr. Dixon says he’s going to do the opposite: He’s backing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in South Carolina’s critical Democratic primary next Saturday.

The 30-something black project manager, originally from St. Louis, Mo., says he is deeply disillusioned with lethargic and insular powers-that-be, both black and white. A real “fear” of the status quo has left him wide open to Senator Sanders’s objections to a “rigged” system where “money and power” bludgeon the little guy.

Dixon, who juggled temporary gigs before recently obtaining full-time work, agrees that black Americans “are better off now than during Bush and Reagan.” The problem for him is that “Hillary Clinton is one of many who have been tap-dancing around the question that was asked,” about how blacks achieve true equality, “a question that’s yet to be answered.”

Energized by what some have called a new civil rights movement and imbued with a sense of voting booth power, America’s black electorate is at a crossroads. The contest in South Carolina, where 28 percent of the population is African-American, and other racially diverse states showcases an evolving political diversity among black voters that could yet upend expectations and reshape the race for the Democratic nomination.

“The biggest characteristic of this emerging post-Obama black [voter group] is that it’s an extra-empowered electorate that doesn’t have a candidate that descriptively represents who they are – so what do they do with all that electoral power?” says Ted Johnson, a black writer and commentator.

Mrs. Clinton narrowly beat Sanders in Iowa, while he trounced her in New Hampshire. A CNN/ORC poll in advance of Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada show the two almost tied, with 48 percent for Clinton and 47 percent for Sanders. While Nevada is more racially diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire, it’s here in South Carolina where black America will for the first time in this cycle flex its impressive political muscle. The Palmetto State primary has the potential to cement the former secretary of State as the front-runner – or rattle the Democratic race to its core.

In a conservative-but-changing city known mostly for “textiles, Bob Jones, and Baptists,” as one resident says, the fits and starts of the Democratic campaign reflect larger realities and challenges, and give a glimpse into a future where African-Americans command increasing power over federal elections, says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. At the same time, the black vote is becoming more diverse than ever before.

Writ big, Mr. Knotts and others say, the shift now involves black Millennials looking toward a world where economic concerns compete with race for their attention – in part evident by increased support among younger voters for a white-haired Jewish guy from Vermont. Moreover, a younger generation of black voters, laden with school debt and weary of waiting for wages to improve, are open to government involvement in more areas of the economy, including Sanders’s promise to push for more affordable, if not free, college educations.

So far, Mrs. Clinton leads the South Carolina polls. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Friday, Sanders leads Clinton among South Carolina’s white Democrats, 51 percent to 46 percent. But Clinton has a formidable advantage among African-Americans in the state, leading 68 percent to 21 percent. Among African-Americans under age 45, Clinton’s lead is smaller but still in double digits, 52 percent to 35 percent.

“It’s a really interesting race, and Clinton’s ability to do well among African-American voters is one of the biggest stories so far, in part built on the fact that she’s been building relationships in the African-American community for a very long time,” says Mr. Knotts.

She's also won a number of heavy-hitter endorsements, including Rep. John Lewis, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidantes. She devoted the first major speech of her presidential campaign last spring to calling for an overhaul of an unequal criminal justice system and declared she would “end the era of mass incarceration,” a vow she made again this week. (Critics point out that her husband’s policies helped create that era, something for which Bill Clinton has expressed regret.)

But for many older black voters, it’s less her message than her back story that makes Clinton the top choice. Outside a community center where she cares for senior citizens, Latarsha White, in her 40s, says older residents of Sterling, an African-American neighborhood, are firmly behind Clinton. As for herself, “I’m still making up my mind, but I’m leaning toward Hillary.”

For his part, Sanders has earned the endorsement of former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, and, on Thursday, the Clark County, Nev., Black Caucus. “We are looking for a President that will dismantle broken systems and provide access to a new deal,” the group’s chair, Yvette Williams, wrote.

One South Carolinian, Branden Simpson, is interested in Sanders’s message, but he won’t be voting next week.

A former drug dealer who started selling at age 9, Mr. Simpson served time in prison for a felony drug conviction. In South Carolina, former convicts cannot vote while still on probation. This week, the shoe salesman sat on the porch of his mother’s house, helping one of his four small children with their homework, examining with a smile their loopy kid letters.

Sanders’s talk of a “rigged system” has the sting of truth for a 20-something who has spent time in a South Carolina state prison for doing something that whippersnapper pot entrepreneurs in Colorado make money doing legally.

While Colorado pot growers are “lauded for contributing to the tax base, [people like Simpson] are now exiled from the political process,” says Mr. Johnson, a former White House fellow.

Both Clinton and Sanders have vowed criminal justice reforms that address such inequities. But Clinton carries baggage. Her husband’s presidency brought about the 1994 crime bill, which included “get tough” mandatory minimum laws. Yes, those laws helped reduce a virulent crime rate, especially in black neighborhoods. But such bipartisan policies also left a legacy of mass incarceration where nonviolent lawbreakers like Simpson, a disproportionate number of them black, struggle to shake free from their mistakes.

Young African-American voters “are not just looking through the lens of the civil rights movement, as a lot of older African-American voters are,” says Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville. “They’ve had opportunities but also modern troubles and struggles that maybe their parents and grandparents didn’t have. This is a generation that’s facing lower wages and they’ve got friends being harassed by the police – it all affects them very directly, and they don’t want to wait to fix it.”

For 20-something Taesha Adams, Sanders’s economic message is compelling. Student loan bill collectors have already started calling her, she says, even though she’s just taking a semester break from college.

Sanders’s calls for student debt reform “are what really caught my attention,” says Ms. Adams, watching a gaggle of grade-schoolers at an after-school program in the historically African-American Sterling neighborhood near Greenville’s westernmost city limit.

Given recent polling trends, there’s a lot to overcome for Sanders, the former New Yorker who became a senator from Vermont. But if Clinton’s lead falters at all next week, it will raise stark questions about how she plans to secure the nomination – while giving Sanders undeniable steering winds.

“If [Clinton] wants that nomination, she better come take it in South Carolina,” says Professor Vinson.

[Editor's note: The College of Charleston was incorrectly identified in a previous version of this story.]

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