Columbia’s Mamie Hayes-Hartwell describes Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s chance to become the nation’s first female president in spiritual terms.
“I believe in divine order. … This is her destiny,” says the 53-year-old Hayes-Hartwell.
In the 2008 S.C. Democratic primary, Hayes-Hartwell voted for another historic candidate – then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. This time, she is backing Clinton.
Columbia’s Brenda McKnight, 68, made the same choice eight years ago.
“It was time for an African-American president. But, now, I feel it’s time for a female president,” said McKnight, who will vote for Clinton later this month.
The chance to elect a woman president will cause some S.C. Democratic women to vote for Clinton over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the state’s Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary. Those women also say Clinton is the more qualified, experienced candidate.
But for some younger S.C. Democratic women, Sanders’ idealism is more appealing than Clinton’s chance to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first female president.
“She is a woman I have admired, but just because she’s a female doesn’t mean that I should or have to support her,” said Sanders supporter Bree Maxwell, the 31-year-old president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina.
A generational rift between supporters of the two candidates is playing out among Democratic voters, including women.
While Clinton has performed well among older voters, Sanders is popular among younger, millennial voters who agree with him that free college, higher wages and universal health care are rights, not radical ideas.
That generational rift was prominent in Iowa earlier this month. There, 84 percent of Democratic caucus-goers, age 17 to 29, picked Sanders. Older voters – those age 65 and up, of all genders – overwhelmingly preferred Clinton, who won 69 percent of their support.
Women and young Democrats in New Hampshire, which borders on Sanders’ home state of Vermont, also prefer Sanders, according to polls. Granite State Democrats go to the polls Tuesday.
So far in South Carolina, however, Clinton is holding on to a large lead over Sanders, including among women, who will play a huge role in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. Sixty-nine percent of women who cast ballots in the state’s 2008 primaries voted in the Democratic contest. In a recent poll, 67 percent of S.C. Democratic women backed Clinton, while only 24 percent backed Sanders.
But Sanders closely trails Clinton among voters under the age of 45, according to a recent poll. A high turnout by those younger voters could help Sanders close the gap on Clinton.
‘He won my heart’
In South Carolina, Sanders’ appeal to young voters has captured some women.
“He won my heart from the start,” said Columbia College sophomore Andy Herrington, who saw Sanders in Columbia and was drawn to “the way he talked about finding jobs and college, helping pay for that.”
Herrington said she also prefers Sanders because she thinks he will push for a better future for everyone and will fight inequality – in education and elsewhere.
Sanders supporter Maxwell said she has more immediate priorities than making history by electing a woman president. Sanders’ “criminal justice platform resonated with me because I am a mother of an African-American young male,” she said, adding that Sanders has adopted the Black Lives Matter activist movement and ending police brutality as parts of his platform.
There is also a generational divide in how some women see the importance of Clinton breaking the so-called glass ceiling – an invisible barrier that prevents women from holding positions of power.
“While it would mean so much” to elect a woman president, “it doesn’t actually solve all of the problems,” said University of South Carolina sophomore Megan Taylor, a campus coordinator for the Sanders campaign.
“(B)reaking the glass ceiling doesn’t really break the glass ceiling. It’s not suddenly open. You have sort of a crack in the ceiling. One person can get through occasionally,” said Taylor, adding she thinks Sanders would “do more for women overall.”
‘I relate to her so much’
But older S.C. women who back Clinton see electing a woman president as a notable achievement and a result their candidate deserves, citing her accomplishments.
Being about the same age as the 68-year-old front-runner makes them identify personally with the challenges Clinton has faced.
“Hillary Clinton and I, basically, grew up together,” said Connie Weethee, 67, of Lexington. “Any crisis that has occurred, she and I have both been a part of, so I feel like I relate to her so much. She was not just a typical first lady. She was immersed and involved and, in fact, she was criticized at the time for that.”
When President Bill Clinton was in office, Weethee added, “we had two for one working in that White House, and I believe it will happen that way again.”
So far, young voters appear unlikely to vault Sanders to a win in South Carolina, where Clinton has an almost 30 percentage point lead.
In a recent poll of S.C. Democratic primary voters, 42 percent of voters under 45 picked Sanders, compared to 50 percent who backed Clinton.
Both Clinton and Sanders campaigns are courting women and young voters.
Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan visited Columbia College and USC last week to talk about why she is supporting Clinton. Sanders campaign is rolling out “Women for Bernie” meet-ups. Also, Erica Garner – the daughter of New Yorker Eric Garner, who was killed in police custody – visited the state this weekend to campaign for the senator, including a stop at USC.
Pressure to make history?
Some younger Democratic voters said Clinton’s historic candidacy does compel them to support the front-runner.
Kyla Gray, a Columbia College junior and undecided voter, said people on social media and her peers try to persuade her to vote for Clinton, even though she is unsure if she agrees with the Clinton’s politics.
“(T)here’s this pressure that it’s been too long – like, now, we have a chance – and we need to go for it. If we don’t do it now, then it will never happen.”
They expect there to be parity. It hasn’t always been that way.
Jean Kanes, 75, of Columbia
S.C. Democratic women
▪ 55 percent of S.C. registered voters are women
▪ 67 percent of S.C. Democratic women support Clinton, compared to 24 percent for Sanders
▪ 69 percent of women who voted in South Carolina’s two 2008 presidential primaries voted in the Democratic primary
▪ 54 percent of women who voted in the 2008 S.C. Democratic presidential primary supported then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, compared to 30 percent who supported Clinton
SOURCE: S.C. Election Commission data and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll; CNN 2008 exit polls