Voting is underway in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, with opinion polls pointing to a landslide victory for former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRestless progressives eye 2024 Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan MORE (I-Vt.).
An easy win for Clinton, if it materializes, would put her in a strong position for Super Tuesday, just three days away, when Democrats vote in 11 states and American Samoa.
Clinton leads Sanders by 26.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls from the Palmetto State. One survey earlier this week, from Clemson University, gave her a 50-point advantage.
Clinton has won two of the three Democratic contests so far, in Iowa and Nevada, while Sanders won the New Hampshire primary.
South Carolina awards its 53 delegates proportionally, which gives Clinton a strong motivation to run up the largest margin possible.
Having lost a bitter primary to then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) 'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency MORE in the state in 2008, an emphatic endorsement from black Democrats this time around would be a big win for Clinton. In 2008, black South Carolinians cast about 55 percent of the total votes in the Democratic primary, according to exit polls.
Clinton has held a huge advantage among black voters since the campaign against Sanders began, and his apparent failure to close that gap is a fundamental problem for his campaign. Entrance polls from last Saturday’s Nevada caucuses indicated that the former secretary of State beat Sanders among black caucus-goers by 54 percentage points.
“I think the most important thing about South Carolina is that Bernie Sanders has not proved yet that he can win black votes,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “And, honestly, if he can’t win black voters, he is in for a real tough time starting Tuesday. You are running into a lot of states on Tuesday — Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas — that have large numbers of African-Americans within the Democratic primary pool.”
Clinton has made every effort to ensure that the black vote remains solid for her in South Carolina. Some of her events have featured family members of black people killed in controversial circumstances, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Her campaign also released a TV ad, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, which sought to underline her commitment to civil rights.
Clinton has also benefited from high-profile endorsements. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a revered figure among southern black Democrats backed her, despite the fact that there were acute tensions between him and the Clintons back in the 2008 primary. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also appeared with her at events in South Carolina.
But not everything has gone smoothly for Clinton. A private fundraiser in Charleston was disrupted by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, who raised concerns about language Clinton has used in the past. One protester held a sign quoting a Clinton comment from 1996, when she said there was a new class of young criminal “super-predators,” adding “we have to bring them to heel.”
Sanders has made his own efforts to boost his support among African-American voters. Film director Spike Lee recorded a radio ad for the Vermont senator, and other prominent African-Americans from academic Cornel West to rapper Killer Mike are also backing him.
But Sanders has also suffered awkward moments, such as a visit to a black church in Columbia last weekend in which he struggled to hold the attention of many of the congregants.
While a win for Sanders would be a colossal shock, some strategists say that he could pull closer to Clinton than many polls are suggesting.
“Hillary is still pretty solid with the over-45s, who are the most likely voters, and Bernie is probably strongest with the under-30s,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said. “He has a real appeal among young voters who are too young to remember — if they were even alive — the Clinton years. They may have been interested in Obama eight years ago when they were children. [Sanders] has got that cool.”
Still, the momentum Sanders derived from his 22-point New Hampshire victory on Feb. 9 was greatly dissipated by Clinton’s comfortable victory in Nevada a week ago. Another big win for her on Saturday could call Sanders’s whole candidacy into question.
“I think it would be very difficult for Bernie Sanders to bounce back after losing Nevada and then South Carolina by an even wider margin,” Simmons said. “He needs to be able to show he is able to build a constituency among the 45 percent of the Democratic electorate that is African American and Latino. And he has not shown that yet.”