As Sanders eyes 2 big wins, Clinton rallies black voters

As Sanders eyes 2 big wins, Clinton rallies black voters
© Getty Images

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE, faced with the real possibility of losing Iowa and New Hampshire to Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDe Blasio headed to Iowa to speak at political fundraiser Yes, spills happen — but pipelines are still the safest way to move oil Why sexual harassment discussions include lawmakers talking about Bill Clinton’s past MORE, is trying to lock down the support of black voters as a way of repelling his challenge in South Carolina and beyond.

But not everyone believes the idea of a “firewall” for Clinton is a sure thing in South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary election on Feb. 27, or in the host of Southern states that vote three days later.

ADVERTISEMENT
“In an election year when just about every narrative, every piece of conventional wisdom, has been turned on its head, I’m at a loss for words when the media talk about a firewall,” said an influential black Democrat who requested anonymity. “There is no wall no more.”

The former secretary of State does enjoy an enormous lead among black voters, according to most polls. A YouGov survey last month found  that about 80 percent of black Democrats in South Carolina supported her, four times as many as those who preferred Sanders.

That kind of backing is vital in the state, where more than half the Democratic votes cast in the 2008 contest were from African-Americans, according to exit polls. The last two major polls in the Palmetto State, both released in December, showed Clinton leading Sanders by 36 percentage points in one and 44 points in the other.

In the 2008 cycle, however, Clinton led then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReport: FCC chair to push for complete repeal of net neutrality Right way and wrong way Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak MORE (D-Ill.) by double-digits in South Carolina one month before the primary, only to get crushed by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 after a racially charged campaign. Still, the dynamics are sharply different this time. Obama was vying to become the first black president and Sanders hails from a largely rural and white state.

The Vermont senator’s aides nonetheless contend that a win in either of the first two states would dramatically change the picture in the subsequent contests. And with a new poll on Tuesday from CNN and WMUR showing Sanders leading in New Hampshire by 27 points, at least one victory seems probable.

“I think we are really going to be able to move a lot of votes in a short amount of time,” Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sanders, insisted. 

He also drew parallels between Obama and Sanders, who was involved in the civil rights movement as a young man. Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous speech, and was arrested protesting segregated housing in his days as a college student.

“Barack Obama had a huge opportunity, and I believe Bernie has a huge opportunity,” Devine said. “The civil rights struggle was a core part of who he is; our agenda [has] big ideas like a living wage, universal college education, that are going to affect the African-American community more than any other community.”

Others, outside the Sanders campaign, agree with the basic contours of that argument.

“[Clinton] has the early advantage now, because more people are familiar with her,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill, referring to voters in the black community. “But once there is a prolonged primary challenge, then people are going to start to want to know more about Bernie Sanders. The whole argument of inevitability starts going if she cannot end this early. She runs the risk of people taking second looks, giving [Sanders] second chances and the chance of people liking what the hear.”

Clinton is hoping it doesn’t come to that. At Sunday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., held the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she invoked the civil rights leader’s memory in the opening seconds and also spoke passionately about racial disparities in policing.

In the debate’s closing stages, she seized upon the water crisis in Flint, Mich., as an example of continued racial disparities in American life. 

“We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care,” she said. “I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”

A Clinton aide said: “With Hillary Clinton’s focus on policies that impact African-American families across the country, and our campaign’s outreach and organization efforts, we are in a strong position to be successful in key states where the African-American vote is critical to winning the primary and the general election.”

Notably, Clinton on Sunday night continually painted herself as the rightful heir to President Obama’s legacy and suggested Sanders had not been so loyal to him. 

“He’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession,” she said at one point, adding, “I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results.”

At another point, apparently alluding to Sanders’s past comments suggesting the president had not fully delivered on his 2008 “hope and change” message, Clinton told the senator, “Your profusion of comments about your feelings towards President Obama are a little strange given what you said about him in 2011.”

“She understands President Obama remains very popular among Democrats, period. And among African-Americans he is extremely well liked and highly regarded,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “She basically was saying, ‘I can talk about all of these issues, but I know you all would like to see me champion the same policies as President Obama.’ ”

But Brazile, who is neutral in the primary campaign, stressed that Sanders should not be dismissed. 

“Bernie Sanders was appealing to the ideals that candidate Obama ran on,” she said.

Sanders aides such as Devine said that their side would fire back if Clinton continues the suggestion that the senator is hostile to Obama. Devine pointed out that the 2008 primary included plenty of examples of Clinton saying “some choice things” about Obama.

“If they move that front and center — ‘Hillary is with Obama and Bernie isn’t’ — we have got a lot of ammo on our side on that one,” he said.

Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonBill Clinton distributes relief supplies in Puerto Rico In Washington and Hollywood, principle is sad matter of timing Mika Brzezinski: Bill Clinton needs to apologize or stop talking MORE attracted controversy with some attacks in 2008, most notably comparing Obama’s 2008 win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 primary triumphs in the state. But eight years later, it appears many black voters have moved on and are back in the Clintons’ corner.

“I think the strongest tool in her drawer for most voters who are Democrats, particularly blacks, is the president,” Sharpton said. “One, he is extremely popular, and two, she can also temper down that feeling that there were some shenanigans in her race in ’08. It is important she identifies with the president.”