After his dramatic win in New Hampshire, Democrat Bernie Sanders on Wednesday continued to hammer at the foundation of Hillary Clinton’s South Carolina firewall – African-American voters.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign sought to reinforce her black support by making the Feb. 27 primary a referendum on President Barack Obama in a state where 97 percent of black voters approve of his performance.
“My vote goes to someone who supports President Obama and intends to build on his legacy,” state Rep. Bakari Sellers wrote in an op-ed expected to run Thursday in The State newspaper of Columbia. “That someone is not Bernie Sanders.”
But Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, isn’t conceding anything.
On Wednesday, he had breakfast in Harlem with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Later he won endorsements from black S.C. Rep. Cezar McKnight as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prominent African-American writer.
It all underscores what both campaigns are keenly aware of: Black voters could make up as much as 55 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate.
“The fight over the African-American vote is central to any Democratic candidate getting elected,” said Todd Shaw, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Though polls show Clinton has the overwhelming majority of the state’s black voters, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said after New Hampshire, she needs a big win to sustain the notion that she has a wider appeal than Sanders.
“She needs to not only win South Carolina but win resoundingly,” Huffmon said. “To do that, she’s got to fire up her base and keep any additional people from drifting over.”
Clinton courts voters
Last week, Clinton ran an ad featuring a testimonial from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. This week, she’s running another one targeting black voters in which she calls for new investments in jobs and education “to counter generations of neglect” and “systemic racism.”
She also has deployed actresses Vivica Fox and Angela Bassett to historically black colleges in South Carolina. On Wednesday, a group of black officials and civil rights leaders took part in a conference call to raise questions about Sanders’ record on issues affecting black voters.
The former secretary of state herself has embraced the president. Last month in Charleston and in subsequent debates, she repeatedly praised Obama’s economic and foreign policy. And as she gave her concession speech Tuesday night in Manchester, she pledged to “continue the progress made under President Obama.”
Clinton supports Obama on issues such as guns. She has criticized Sanders for voting against some gun measures. Tying herself to the president appeals to many black South Carolina voters.
After shopping for balloons at a Dollar General in Rock Hill, 23-year-old Courtney Harris said she would vote for Clinton because “she’s down for everything Obama’s for.”
So is Karen Shabazz, who owns the downtown Shabazz Barber & Styling College.
“We have made a lot of progress,” said Shabazz, 55. “(Clinton) will have the same policies as Obama. … We know Hillary. She supported our president, and he has made major changes for the good.”
Clinton’s supporters have taken aim at Sanders, criticizing a blurb he wrote for a book by radio personality Bill Press called “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama let Progressives Down.” And they’ve targeted one of Sanders’ key surrogates, writer and liberal activist Cornel West, one of Obama’s biggest critics.
“That’s an understatement,” Sellers wrote in his op-ed. “Cornel West hates President Obama and once called him ‘a brown-faced Clinton,’ ‘a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,’ and a ‘counterfeit’ of a progressive.”
S.C. Rep. Joe Neal of Columbia called such attacks “desperation.”
“While (West) has had disagreements with the president, I don’t think that disqualifies him from campaigning for Bernie,” said Neal, a Sanders supporter. “All of this seems to point to what seems to be desperation on the part of the Hillary campaign.”
Though Clinton has the support of most South Carolina lawmakers, Sanders continues to pick up supporters such as Neal and McKnight, a Democrat from Kingstree.
Shaw, the USC political scientist, said some black voters recall President Bill Clinton’s criticism of Obama during the 2008 S.C. primary. One is Alvin Murdock.
Murdock, an avid Obama supporter who cuts hair at Rock Hill’s Kut Kreator barbershop, is leaning toward Sanders. He remembers Clinton’s attacks on Obama, including claims that the Illinois senator was elitist and equated his calls for unity to waving a magic wand.
“I haven’t forgotten about that,” Murdock said.
Coates, the author, also recalls the 1994 crime bill backed by President Clinton that led to longer sentencing policies, which disproportionately affect African-Americans.
“I’m very, very concerned about Sen. Clinton’s record,” Coates told Democracy Now. “I’m very, very concerned about where her positions were in the 1990s, when we had some of the most disgusting legislation in terms of our criminal justice … in this country’s history.”
Sanders still has an uphill fight against the better-known Clinton.
“In the black community, as far as my generation is concerned, (Sanders is) somewhat unknown,” said Larry Stevens, 42, of Rock Hill, who plans to vote for Clinton. “With younger voters, he might get more votes. But he may be somewhat unknown among our generation.”
Sanders supporters know that.
“The challenge for the Sanders campaign is to become known in the African-American community,” Neal said. “That’s changing. And it’s changing rapidly.”
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off Thursday in a debate sponsored by PBS. It will also air on CNN.
Republican candidates meet Saturday in Greenville, S.C., for a CBS News debate.
Both debates start at 9 p.m.