By Amie Parnes - 02/13/16 06:00 AM EST
After a blistering loss in New Hampshire, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton holds huge ground game advantage over Team Trump WATCH LIVE: Clinton, Kaine rally supporters in Pennsylvania Bill Clinton: We're entering era that will 'make the 90s look like small potatoes' MORE is relying on strong support from black Democrats in South Carolina to ensure she carries the state and stabilizes her quest for the White House.
In recent days, Clinton aides have been laser-focused on the Palmetto State, where Democrats vote on Feb. 27. Her team is trying to fend off rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton camp oppo research: Sanders has 'no accomplishments' Heck's rejection of Trump imperils Nevada Senate race Goldman CEO: 'I’m supportive of Hillary Clinton' MORE, who had long predicted he would pick up steam there. In addition to his New Hampshire victory, Sanders came within a hair’s breadth of defeating Clinton in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.
She has also been reminding voters that she is making the water crisis in Flint, Mich. a priority. And she hopes to secure even more support as she continues to meet with black religious leaders in the coming days.
All of those efforts are vital because black South Carolinians hold the fate of the primary in their hands. The last time there was a contested Democratic primary in the state, in 2008, 55 percent of those who voted were black, according to exit polls. On that occasion, Clinton went down to a heavy defeat to then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama promotes new airline regulations Is Georgia turning blue? Five takeaways from money race MORE after a campaign that roiled racial tensions.
In recent months, Democratic strategists and political observers have labeled the state as friendly terrain for Clinton because of her support in the African-American community. Sanders, by contrast, appears to lag a long way behind in terms of black support nationally and in polls of South Carolina Democrats.
A headline in the Post and Courier in South Carolina on Friday announced “Clinton To Confront Racial Disparities,” while also mentioning that Sanders was still working on his schedule in the state.
But lately, some strategists caution that Clinton’s firewall in South Carolina doesn’t appear as formidable as it once did.
On the heels of the New Hampshire loss, where majorities of young voters and women supported Sanders, experts predict some black voters will follow suit.
That, in turn, will cut into “the kind of vote she is expecting both outside and within the African American community,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“The kind of unity she was hoping to see from certain factions has not been there and Sanders has used this to his advantage,” Zelizer said.
One top Democratic strategist unaffiliated with either campaign went further: "Sanders doesn't have to win a majority of the African-American votes but if he gets to 40 percent and continues his trend of support among white voters, he can give her a real run for her money.
“He can make it close enough where people get nervous or scared,” the strategist added. “That number will be a lot closer than people think. If you look at what the Clinton campaign has been focused on in recent days, I think they're running scared on this.”
Sanders got a much-needed boost last week, when Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and the youngest person ever to lead the organization, endorsed the Vermont senator.
Appearing on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” earlier this week, Jealous ripped Clinton’s policies and criticized her for inconsistency.
“Bernie Sanders has been very consistent in fighting racism, in fighting stupid wars, Vietnam or Iraq, he has been very consistent in fighting greed,” Jealous said. “When you take those with Hillary, it just gets confusing, confusing.”
The Clinton campaign has touted the backing of the CBC PAC, and of high profile individual congressmen including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). But Sanders has also received support from prominent African-Americans including writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, academic Cornel West, and actor-activists Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover.
“He has gotten some high profile supporters so that's a meaningful validation,” said Steve Phillips, the author of “Brown is the New White,” a book about the electoral importance of non-white voters.
Yet Phillips added that Sanders “has a lot to offer but has a short window to communicate who he is…It is a steep hill for Sen. Sanders to climb given the unfamiliarity issue when you're dealing with someone who's been known for 30 years.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who is supporting Clinton, told The Hill that Sanders “would have an uphill battle” primarily because both Hillary Clinton and former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonBill Clinton: We're entering era that will 'make the 90s look like small potatoes' Trump son: Talk like father's leaked 2005 tapes 'a fact of life' Is Georgia turning blue? MORE “have been around for a long time and they have done a lot of things to assist African Americans and that has not been forgotten.”
Cleaver remembers specific moments that resonate with the African American community. One memory is of both Clintons coming to Coretta Scott King’s funeral in Atlanta a decade ago. He recalled that Bill Clinton “stuck around and then stayed some more after he spoke.”
Cleaver acknowledges that Hillary Clinton might have a problem with the youth vote among African Americans. But he added, “Once they begin to get the facts and the history of who’s been there, I think you’re going to see a peeling-off.
“We’re beginning to move them away.”