Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is methodically building a political firewall across the South in hopes of effectively locking up the Democratic nomination in March regardless of any early setbacks in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Clinton’s advisers, struck by the strength of Sen. Bernie Sanders in those two states, have been assuring worried supporters that victories and superdelegate support in Southern states will help make her the inevitable nominee faster than many Democrats expect. They point to her popularity with black and Hispanic voters, as well as her policy stances and the relationships that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have cultivated. Hillary Clinton was similarly confident at this point eight years ago, before Barack Obama and his superior organizers began piling up delegates, including in many Southern states.
In interviews, advisers said the campaign was devoting staff members and money to win the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27 while laying the groundwork to sweep Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia on March 1. Those Super Tuesday states are highlighted in red on maps in the offices of Clinton’s senior aides in New York City.
The eight primaries will deliver several hundred delegates for Clinton, advisers believe, toward the goal of more than 2,200 needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. The campaign is barraging superdelegates in the South with requests for support – sometimes even jumping the gun by sending pledge forms prematurely – in hopes of adding scores of these party leaders who can bring their votes to the Clinton column at the Democratic National Convention.
The Southern firewall also includes Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, which vote through mid-March. If Clinton wins big in the Michigan and Ohio primaries that month, her advisers and supporters believe, the nomination will essentially be hers (though crossing the total delegate threshold takes time).
Clinton’s Southern strategy shows in sharp relief the imprint of the data-driven, organization-focused nature of the Obama 2008 campaign on the Clinton operation. Her aides are committed to keeping their heads down, taking the long view and adhering to a no-bedwetting mantra in the face of Clinton’s unstable poll numbers and other headaches.
“There’s so much focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, but Secretary Clinton and her team know that the South will deliver a huge number of delegates that will essentially seal the nomination for her,” said DuBose Porter, the Georgia Democratic Party chairman and a Clinton supporter.
A Southern firewall, which was critical to Bill Clinton in 1992 and, to a lesser extent, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, could be scrambled if Hillary Clinton ends up facing a challenge for the nomination from Vice President Joe Biden. Like her, Biden enjoys sizable support among black and Hispanic voters and has been a loyal partner to the nation’s first black president, Obama. (At the same time, some Clinton advisers believe her strength in the South could be a disincentive for Biden to enter the race.)
Sanders, who represents Vermont, while far less known among black and Hispanic voters than Clinton, could have the momentum to become a surprise contender in some Southern states if he prevails in Iowa and New Hampshire, said Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a powerful Democrat there.
“If the headlines out of Iowa and New Hampshire are really bad for Hillary, the South will become more challenging – and even more important as a firewall,” Clyburn said. Referring to federal inquiries related to Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state, he added, “Barring some revelation that we have not seen, I do think Hillary waltzes through South Carolina.”
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said she had made it an early priority to develop a winning battle plan for the South to follow the campaign’s intense efforts in the earliest primaries and caucuses.
Southern states will play a far bigger role than usual in this nominating cycle, with most voting by March 15, and black and Hispanic votes will be crucial in many of those Democratic primaries.
Even as polls show declines in the percentage of voters overall who have a favorable opinion of Clinton, she continues to enjoy “tremendous support” from black and Hispanic voters, as Mook put it. The Clinton campaign is building networks of support through the South in part to “reach out and re-earn their support” rather than assume they will favor her over rivals like Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
“She made it very clear to me that we could not take anything for granted, and that while we needed to understand the importance of being successful in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina, we needed a strategy that could endure any sort of challenge,” Mook said. “I think she was very clairvoyant from the start that this would be a competitive race.”
Asked if he could see Clinton losing any of the March 1 contests in Southern and border states, Mook did not answer directly, saying, “I’m really excited about the support that we’re holding right now.”
But he emphasized that the campaign was only starting to build a political fortress in the region, with work ramping up in Virginia and Georgia. He added that the campaign was reaching out to voters across all demographic groups.
“Just because you win among African Americans and Hispanic Americans doesn’t mean you can write off white Americans, and vice versa,” Mook said.
Candidates win delegates based on vote totals, so Sanders and other Clinton rivals can come away from Southern states with delegates even if Clinton wins there. But Clinton delegate counters believe she will be so dominant that she will take the lion’s share of delegates, unlike in 2008, when Obama often earned sizable numbers of delegates with strong wins and close second-place finishes. The South is the most visible of several firewalls that Clinton and her advisers are trying to construct. They are lining up superdelegate endorsements at a brisk pace, with Clinton holding a rally Saturday in the critical state of New Hampshire to highlight the backing of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Mook said “we’re trying to get every superdelegate” but declined to say how many of the 713 had committed to Clinton. Other Clinton advisers said a sizable fraction had done so – a crucial step toward outpacing Sanders and O'Malley in total delegate support, Democrats noted. (A spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee noted, however, that superdelegates are free to change their minds and support another candidate at any time.)
“Clearly the campaign has learned well from its 2008 experience, and there seems to be a lot more outreach these days both at superdelegate level and at ground level,” said Julián Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio who is Obama’s secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The outreach has been aggressive. Jon M. Ausman, a longtime Florida superdelegate, said he had received a call from Craig Smith, an old friend who was political director in the Clinton White House and is close to both Clintons. Blanca O’Leary, a Colorado superdelegate, said she had received calls from “top Clinton people” before pledging her support to Clinton. A North Carolina superdelegate, Pat Cotham, said she had recently received phone calls and emails from Clinton aides – including one whose title was the “southern region political states director” and who sent her a pledge form.
“This kind of irritated me,” Cotham said. “He called me and never said anything about signing a document committing to Hillary. Then he sends it to me and wants me to send it back to him signed. Uh, no.”
Clinton has taken several more progressive policy positions on immigration and education that could undercut efforts by rivals to peel away her liberal supporters. She is not as far left in her positioning as Sanders, whose views as a self-described democratic socialist could founder in Southern states, some Democrats say.
“Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if Hillary lost Iowa and loses New Hampshire to Sanders, but then Sanders and his policies will hit a real wall down South,” said Ausman of Florida, who is supporting Clinton.
Clinton’s campaign has also embraced the plan of the Democratic National Committee to hold only six televised debates, even though O'Malley and Sanders are pushing for more. Some Clinton supporters wanted even fewer debates, which would have been an even bigger barrier to visibility for the other Democratic candidates.
But winning primaries is the most important firewall of all, said several Democrats who know from experience. Another Clinton ally, Mondale, the former vice president, credited Super Tuesday victories in Alabama and Georgia in 1984 with keeping him alive against Gary Hart, and he said he believed that Clinton’s strengths with minority voters and working-class white Democrats would provide decisive advantages in the South for her.
“If I hadn’t won in the South, I think I would have lost the nomination, and I think it’s the South that will be the key for Hillary, too,” Mondale said. “If things turn sour in the early states, firewalls can save you, and she will have real advantages down there.”