Watershed moment in South Carolina for Hillary Clinton?

Why black voters say they are leaning toward Hillary Clinton in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina. 

REUTERS/Randall Hill
eople stand prepare and vote around the voting machines in Mount Zion AME Church at the Florence 1 precinct for the 2016 South Carolina Primary in Florence, South Carolina, February 27, 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stood on the precipice of a decisive primary victory here in South Carolina’s “first-in-the-South” primary on Saturday. 

This could be a 2016 watershed moment that could cement the former US Secretary of State as the Democrat to beat – and offer insights into a political coalition that could presage a path to the White House.

After losing in New Hampshire, squeaking by in Iowa and winning decisively in Nevada, Ms. Clinton led by at least 25 percentage points over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as voting booths opened Saturday in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina is critical because it's the first test of the depth of African-American support for Clinton, who has struggled, as she did during her 2008 presidential foray, to seal the deal against what many have called an impressive campaign this time by Mr. Sanders, a socialist.

South Carolina will also set the stage for Super Tuesday, a March 1 sweep of 11 state primaries (as well as American Samoa), many of them with large black populations.

“The South Carolina primary on Saturday probably will be [Clinton’s] long-delayed moment in the sun,” notes Douglas Perry in The Oregonian. (Donald Trump won the Republican South Carolina primary, held last Saturday.)

Clinton’s big poll lead was reinforced by comments made by voters here in Aiken, S.C., a day after former President Bill Clinton led a rally at Aiken High School.

“She has experience, presidential fortitude and I’m comfortable with her – I know who she is,” says Eugene Spann, a black voter.

Most voters came to otherwise quiet polling places to cast their vote for Clinton Saturday. They cited a variety of reasons, including her experience and familiarity. But most of them had their eyes on the general election, where they cited Clinton as the Democrats’ best chance to take on a Republican candidate like frontrunner Donald Trump, and become the natural successor to Barack Obama.

To be sure, Clinton has thrown massive resources into the state. Unlike Sanders, who largely decamped from South Carolina this week, she and her husband criss-crossed the state on separate itineraries. Mrs. Clinton planned to be in Columbia for a primary night rally on Saturday night.

That effort underscores how, for Clinton, South Carolina may be a turning point. Despite some bad blood stemming from a fractious 2008 primary race against Mr. Obama, the African-American community has begun to rally around her, largely due to what one voter called a “long-time affinity” with black voters, who make up 55 percent of the Democratic electorate here. Clinton also embraced her role as Obama’s standard-bearer, thus tying the president’s legacy to her candidacy.

“I’m a proud defender of President Obama,” she told college students in Orangeburg this week.

“I want to break every barrier that stands in the way of any American from getting ahead and staying ahead," Clinton added. "I know that America can't live up to its potential unless every person in our country has a chance to live up to his or hers."

Obama owed much of his electoral success to African-American voters, especially those here in South Carolina. But in 2008, Clinton had their support before he did. Indeed, Clinton led polling in South Carolina before Obama came out of Iowa and New Hampshire with strong showings, whereupon black voters swung hard to Obama.

The defection stung. “In her last campaign, the state shattered Mrs. Clinton’s hopes and frayed the relationship she and Bill Clinton had with black voters, dealing Mr. Obama a 28-percentage-point victory and convincing the country that his appeal extended beyond the largely white, liberal electorate of Iowa,” Amy Chozick writes in the New York Times.

Her challenge now is to remind black voters that she understands African-Americans and their challenges better than other candidates. Some younger African-Americans have swung toward Sanders in recent weeks. One poll saw Sanders cut into Clinton’s lead by 17 percentage points.

During her tour this week, Clinton has presented herself as a unifying force who can most directly help the state’s large population of impoverished and uneducated residents.

"Ending systemic racism requires contributions from all of us -- especially those of us who haven't experienced it ourselves," Clinton wrote during a recent Facebook Q&A event. “White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers that you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone's experiences. So I'm going to keep spreading this message -- and not just in front of African-American audiences. I'm going to keep talking to every kind of audience about this."

Aiken resident Deborah Holloway says she knows Mrs. Clinton personally from her own days as a union organizer in New York City, when Clinton was the US senator from New York. She’s “down to earth,” has traveled to over 100 the countries, and has the “experience and temperament.” She says her own main concerns are “the homeless, veterans and senior citizens,” and she feels Clinton shares those issues.

Shrugging off the low number of voters on hand at one voting station Saturday morning, Ms. Holloway said Clinton is getting ready to be the recipient of the same coalition that rose up to give the US its first black president. The momentum behind putting an “experienced and qualified” woman in the White House could rival, even exceed, the broad-based passion that propelled Obama to the presidency, she says. “Nobody will be able to stop her,” she says.

Clinton has other fans, too. David Ekos, a white retiree originally from Massachusetts, says he supports Clinton for one reason: “Stop Trump,” referring to one potential Republican nominee.

For Sanders, “the hard part is getting beyond the Clinton brand,” Sanders supporter Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chairman, said recently. “The Clinton brand is a bit like Coca-Cola. You know, it's a Southern brand. Everybody knows it. It tastes good.”

Yet Clinton has hardly emerged unscathed from South Carolina. Days after she said white people “need to do a better job of listening” to African-American concerns, she became flustered when a Black Lives Matter protester confronted her at a $500-a-plate fundraiser Wednesday night in Charleston.

Offended by Clinton’s use of the words “super-predator” and the phrase “bring them to heel” from a 1990s speech, the protester said, “I’m not a super-predator.” After a testy exchange and after the woman was removed by a body guard, Clinton turned to the audience and said, “Back to the issues.” (Clinton has since said she made a mistake in using those words in the 1990s.)

Aiken resident Leon Curry says that incident smacks of the kind of political hypocrisy that has turned many – especially younger African-Americans – to Sanders.

Mr. Curry, who is black, remembers Bill Clinton’s 2008 jab at Obama, where Mr. Clinton compared Obama’s South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson’s primary victories in the state in 1984 and 1988, neither of which translated beyond the state. Seen by Mr. Curry as a slight racial jab, he says, “Those kinds of things just stick with me.”

Whether such incidents are enough to turn more voters toward Sanders, however, is not clear. Though Sanders said Clinton’s deep relationships in South Carolina make it a “hard state,” he has vowed to fight to cut her lead – and, thereby, highlight his own relevance. Any signs of resonance in the black community could boost him as he enters Super Tuesday.

So far, however, “Bernie Sanders has not proved that he can win black votes,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon tells The Hill.

Indeed, as interviews with voters here in Aiken suggest, it won’t be an easy task. “Sanders?” says Mr. Spann, casting his vote Saturday morning. “I don’t know that much about him.”

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