Sanders, Clinton set for critical two-week campaign stretch

Sanders, Clinton set for critical two-week campaign stretch
© Getty Images

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report DNC sues Russia, Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over alleged election interference MORE and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' Chuck Todd lashes out at Fox, defends wife in radio interview Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report MORE, fresh off their Thursday night debate in Milwaukee, are starting a two-week sprint that could remake the Democratic presidential race.

The Nevada caucuses are looming on Feb. 20, and the South Carolina primary follows one week later.

If Sanders does well in the two states, the seriousness of his challenge to Clinton will be undeniable. On the other hand, landslides for Clinton would give her a chance to snuff out Sanders’s hopes when more than 10 states vote on Super Tuesday, three days after South Carolina.

“There is a lot at stake,” said longtime Democratic consultant Bob Shrum. “If Sanders would break through and win, or come close, in Nevada, I think it would further disconcert a lot of people in the party and give him more momentum moving into South Carolina.” 

If Sanders were to outperform expectations in the Palmetto State as well, Shrum added, “we would be, for sure, looking at a very long contest."

The contests in Nevada and South Carolina are particularly important because they will test the notion that Sanders has limited appeal with nonwhite Democrats. 

The Clinton campaign has taken refuge in that belief, which is buttressed by opinion polls, in the face of the Vermont senator’s strong showing in Iowa and his emphatic victory in New Hampshire. 

Sanders beat the former secretary of State by 22 points in the Granite State primary on Tuesday, sending tremors through the ranks of Clinton allies.

“The Silver State and the Palmetto State are important, as coming out of the dust of Iowa and snow of New Hampshire, they will provide sunlight as to whether Sanders can broaden his appeal to voters who more closely reflect the mosaic that is the Democratic Party,” said Chris Lehane, a strategist who worked in Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWith Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker When Barbara Bush praised Bill Clinton, and Clinton praised the man she loved Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska MORE’s White House. Lehane is not working for any candidate this election cycle.

Aides to Sanders have long argued that his support from black voters will increase as he becomes better-known and as details of his life, including his involvement with the civil rights movement as a young man, become more familiar. 

But the Clinton campaign, eager to maintain its apparent advantage, has been aided by a number of prominent black politicians in recent days. 

On Thursday, Clinton received the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee. 

At a news conference announcing that endorsement, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said of Sanders, “I never met him,” apparently referring to the struggles during the 1960s. The previous day, another black Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), said during a media conference call organized by the Clinton campaign that Sanders “has been largely missing in action” on issues of racial justice.

Sanders has also received some prominent black support, however. Musician and activist Harry Belafonte endorsed him on Thursday, and Ben Jealous, a former head of the NAACP, did so last week. 

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said he will vote for Sanders, and academic Cornel West has been hitting the campaign trail with the senator. The day after his New Hampshire victory, Sanders had a well-publicized meeting with Al Sharpton at a storied Harlem soul-food restaurant. 

At Thursday night’s debate, both candidates made specific appeals to nonwhite voters from the start. Sanders’s opening remarks included a lament about “a broken criminal justice system” Clinton presented herself as a candidate who wanted to “tackle those barriers that stand in the way of too many Americans," specifically naming "African-Americans who face discrimination" and "hardworking immigrant families living in fear.”

Both candidates sounded similar themes throughout the debate in exchanges that revealed few substantive differences but underlined their courting of nonwhite voters.

In Nevada in 2008, 15 percent of Democratic caucusgoers were black and 15 percent were Hispanic, according to entrance polls. In South Carolina that year, exit polls indicated 55 percent of Democratic voters were black. Clinton won Nevada but lost South Carolina heavily to then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism Colorado state lawmakers advance measure to rename highway after Obama MORE (Ill.).

By contrast, the turnout in the Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire this year was 91 percent white and 93 percent white, respectively, according to entrance and exit polls.

Clinton allies argue that these demographic quirks made those states unusually favorable to Sanders. Her quest for the nomination will soon stabilize, they insist.

As the New Hampshire results were coming in, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook sent out a memo to reassure her foot soldiers.

“It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for a Democrat to win the nomination without strong levels of support among African-American and Hispanic voters,” he wrote. “We believe that’s how it should be.”

While Mook’s memo was focused on March contests, he also noted that “we feel very good about our chances of success” in Nevada and South Carolina.

The two last major polls out of South Carolina, from CBS News/YouGov and NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist, gave the former secretary of State leads of 22 points and 37 points. In Nevada, a poll by Gravis put her ahead by 23 points.

But all those polls were conducted before the Iowa caucuses. Without recent polling data, there is no way of telling how Sanders’s strong performances might have changed the picture.

Polling in Nevada is also particularly challenging because of an unusually high degree of population turnover, according to David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“This is really only the second time we have had caucuses here — 2012 was a non-event — so we don’t have much of a track record or much reliable polling,” he said. “Our state is always growing and contracting, so the electorate just shifts from one cycle to the next.” 

With no further debates scheduled before the two states vote, the battle between Clinton and Sanders will be fought via dueling TV ads, surrogate appearances and on the ground. 

Clinton is expected to visit South Carolina on Friday, and in an email to The Hill, an aide noted the strength of her ground game there. Organizing efforts began in April last year, the aide said, while on Tuesday alone “we reached out to 30,000 voters” in the state.

It is a fierce battle with high stakes.

“The competitive nature, or lack thereof, of the two states will indicate whether this will be a protracted campaign that will go well beyond the SEC primary,” said Lehane, using an alternative nickname for Super Tuesday, when several states in the Deep South vote.  

The alternative, he added, was that the results would “set up the SEC primary as the chance for a campaign to spike the ball in the end zone."