By Hastings Wyman –
The outcome of Saturday’s Democratic Primary in the Palmetto State is critical to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If Clinton fails to win big, it will signal more problems to come in the March 1 SEC primaries across the South. If Bernie fails to make a decent showing, not exceeding expectations, such as they are, then Clinton’s upcoming primary victories and delegate tallies will make him an also-ran who managed to move the Democratic Party further left than it has been, but did not successfully buck the party establishment.
Clinton’s win in the Nevada caucuses gives her a significant boost. Although it was not huge – a 6 point margin – CNN’s talking heads said it all: “a decisive victory,” “a decent margin,” “a big winner,” “a good win for her.” Moreover, exit polls showed she won the black voters support by three to one, which bodes well for her in the South, where African Americans are a major part of the Democratic Primary electorate. Sanders wasn’t pushed out of the race, but his momentum was slowed significantly.
Clinton starts out with major leads in South Carolina. She had a lead of 53% to 31% for Sanders in a Bloomberg poll of likely South Carolina Democratic Primary voters taken last week. She led among African Americans, who accounted for half of the sample, by 59% to 20%. (By some estimates, based on past exit polls reported in the Washington Post, African Americans are likely to account for 57% of the Democratic turnout here.) Sanders had a slight edge among whites, 45% to 42%. Young white voters – those under 45 – preferred Sanders by 67% to 22%. Clinton also led 59% to 40% in an earlier poll taken after her loss in New Hampshire by CBS News. Other polls have shown similar leads for Clinton.
Clinton also has the lion’s share of the state’s Democratic muscle in her corner. US Rep. James Clyburn (D), the third-ranking Democrat in the US House and a heavyweight in the state’s Democratic politics, endorsed Clinton last Friday, ending months of staying on the fence. “Hillary Clinton is a fighter, and that’s what we need for our next president,” Clyburn said at a news conference reported by Reuters. In an interview with USA Today a week earlier, Clyburn telegraphed his decision to back Clinton: “If you’re the governor of a Southern state, as Bill Clinton was, and she of course was first lady, you will get certain experiences interacting with Southerners and people of color that you probably won’t get coming up in politics as Bernie Sanders [did].”
Clyburn is the 18th of the 18 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) from the South who are supporting Clinton, a powerful indicator of her appeal among the South’s African American leadership. Moreover, the group’s PAC has endorsed her and a dozen or so CBC members are stumping the state for her.
Clinton is also benefitting from having her Palmetto State campaign run by Clay Middleton, a former political aid of Clyburn’s who was active in Obama’s campaigns in the state in 2008 and 2012.
“This idea that the media is selling that Bernie Sanders will run strong here is just wrong,” H. Boyd Brown, the state’s young and energetic Democratic National Committeeman. Brown was initially for Martin O’Malley, but endorsed Clinton earlier this month. He forecasts Clinton will get 62% of the vote, or a lead of 24 points over Sanders. “She’s been organizing down here for two years,” he says, noting that Sanders is too late to the campaign. “In the rural area where I live, it’s ‘Bernie who?’”
But some old-line Democratic warhorses that are supporting Clinton are concerned that their candidate is associated with yesterday’s politics, without the cutting edge energy that benefits the Sanders’ campaign.
Waring Howe, a former Democratic National Committeeman, says that he’s “becoming a little concerned that Hillary seems rather static in South Carolina and elsewhere. Bernie Sanders has the excitement and momentum.” Nevertheless, he adds that “Here in South Carolina, she will win big… Hillary is well-known here. We’ve got center-left folks, which is what Hillary Clinton is.” Howe deems Sanders “extreme left,” noting that “He wasn’t even a Democrat before he ran for president.” He also decries “the degree of government spending” required for free college for everyone and free medical care.
Noting that Clinton is popular with minority voters, Howe points out that most whites will vote in the Republican Primary, which will enlarge the share of African-American voters in the Democratic Primary. (You can vote in either, but not both, in the Palmetto State.)
Charleston City Councilman Rod Williams, who is African-American, echoes Howe’s support for Clinton, but is also apprehensive about Sanders’ appeal. He categorizes Clinton as a “traditional candidate” and believes the Democratic Party “is refiguring an old age candidate” from the past. The party, he says, “has been dead since 2008. And she’s not inspiring the base. She’s using the same old message that we are going to do what we say we’re going to do.”
Williams, like Boyd Brown, was a supporter of O’Malley, opining that the former mayor of Baltimore “was the first candidate since John F. Kennedy that understood the city.” As an officeholder in one of the state’s major cities, Williams laments the infrastructure problems in cities and says they require federal funds. Otherwise, “the erosion of minorities in the city,” as has occurred in Charleston, will continue. While he believes that Sanders is “heading in that direction” and is talking about “things young people want to hear,” he cautions, “You can’t just tell a bunch of young people that everything is free.”
He concludes, “I know that the Clintons are very concerned” about urban problems and says that he will support Hillary Clinton on Saturday.
In addition to the many younger political activists, including African Americans, Sanders is supported by some state legislators, including state Rep. Terry Alexander of Florence. Gloria Bromell Tinubu, who ran two unsuccessful through respectable races for Congress, is also backing Sanders.
According to a Washington Times article in January, Sanders’ campaign has six headquarters across the state, with some 60 folks on its staff, plus another 120 paid part-timers going door-to-door. The campaign, as might be expected, is especially well-organized on college campuses. Clinton’s endorsements from both black and white officeholders and political leaders throughout the state is approaching 100. The campaign also has some 2,500 active volunteers.
All signs point to a solid Clinton victory here, probably solid enough to give her a major boost in the March 1 primaries. But there’s also plenty of oomph in the Sanders campaign. Whether it’s enough to make the kind of showing that will sustain his momentum remains to be seen.