Clinton ‘Firewall’ in South Carolina primary resonates in Illinois

Hillary Clinton and voters
Hillary Clinton meets with African-American supporters in Columbia, South Carolina (Hillary for America/FLICKR)

By Caroline Kenny

In the wake of her virtual tie in Iowa and a 20-point loss to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in New Hampshire last night, Hillary Clinton is looking to the next stop on the campaign trail, South Carolina, to lock down the votes in a more diverse state.

Iowa has not always been kind to the Clinton family when running for president. In 1992, Bill Clinton did not even try in Iowa, knowing Tom Harkin had the vote locked down, so he focused his energy elsewhere. In 2008, Clinton’s campaign did not get on the ground in Iowa until far too late, leading the organization for a little-known senator named Barack Obama to succeed after months of building relationships and knocking on doors. This time around, she organized wide and far across the state, but so did her opponents. Her overpowering lead from early on in the campaign seems to be slipping.

Clinton won New Hampshire in 2008, defeating the future nominee, Obama, but last night she suffered a loss in every demographic group except people over 65. Sanders’ resounding victory in his neighboring state where the population is only 1.5 percent African-American shows who he resonates with and the momentum that his campaign has picked up in recent weeks.

South Carolina is a different story.

As the 2016 Democratic primary in South Carolina quickly approaches, with Clinton leading the polls by double digits, it is easy to push memories of her 2008 2-1 loss to Obama there out of mind. But not for Clinton, who is determined to make South Carolina her territory this time around, considering it her “firewall.”

“The simple fact is that she does better with African-Americans and is leading African-Americans and Hispanics overwhelmingly, not just in South Carolina but nationally,” said Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN political analyst, who supports Clinton.

Sellers noted that the half of the Democratic voting base in South Carolina, 56 percent, is comprised of African-Americans, a completely different demographic than the nearly all-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Illinois falls under a similar umbrella as South Carolina. About 30 percent of the Democratic voting base is African-American, and the Clinton’s legacy with African-American voters and fighting for issues that are important to them still resonates in the state, such as gun control and mass incarceration.

“African-American support for Hillary is not just because of a few weeks of TV ads or a few prominent leaders coming out and supporting her, this is something her and Bill have built over decades,” said John Kupper, a Democratic strategist based in Chicago. “I don’t think that’s easy to overcome, particularly for someone like Sanders who hasn’t been anywhere near the national prominence on the issues important to African-American community the way that Bill and Hillary have.”

Kupper also said Obama was able to turn his early wins in states such as Iowa into strong momentum for the rest of the campaign, and the Sanders campaign, with its weaker organization, might not be able to do that.

“This isn’t 2008, nobody in this race is named Barack Obama,” Sellers said. “This time around, Hillary is the one that resonates with African-American voters.”

Because of this fact, the Clinton team has been pouring resources including staff, money and ads into the Palmetto State for months.

At South Carolina Democratic Weekend in April, when many notable events including the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Clyburn Fish Fry and Democratic Convention, took place, Clinton organizers from around the state took these opportunities to introduce themselves to voters and get them to sign commit to vote cards — 10 months before the primary.

Political scholars have backed up what the political strategists have been thinking: African-Americans represent a key base of Clinton supporters. With South Carolina being home to such a large African American voting base and being the First in the South primary, the Clinton camp understands the importance of winning big early to set a precedent before Super Tuesday.

“She’s got the demographics, she is more moderate and she is more organized,” said Dr. Gibbs Knotts, political science chairman at the College of Charleston. “Not just in South Carolina will she do well, but in all of the South because the majority of the electorate will be black.”

Knotts said Sanders does not resonate with South Carolina voters, especially because his issues are not their issues.

In the wake of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in June 2015 where a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans, South Carolina Democrats are more sensitive than ever when it comes to gun issues, and Sanders’ record on the issue is not as strong as Clinton’s.

But, as what happened in other early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders seems to be encroaching on Clinton’s lead in South Carolina quickly, even among African-Americans.

State Rep. Justin Bamberg, who represents a largely rural and African-American region of the state, switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders. Bamberg is also the attorney for the Walter Scott family, who died after being shot in the back by a white police office in North Charleston in April.

“Bernie represents bold new leadership and is not afraid to challenge the status quo,” Bamberg said. “Don’t tell me that Sen. Bernie Sanders cannot become president of the United States of America.”

Bamberg is not alone in these beliefs. State Representative Wendell Gilliard of Charleston, whose district includes Mother Emanuel, also expressed his support for Sanders last week as well.

With less than a month left until primary day, Feb. 27,  and two high-profile primaries taking place before then, South Carolina voters still have time to make up their minds or change their allegiance. Until then, both candidates will focus on locking down voters and getting them to commit to their camp.

Photo at top: Hillary Clinton meets with African-American supporters in Columbia, South Carolina (Hillary for America/FLICKR)