Clinton and Sanders Battle for the Black Vote

The first Democratic primary in the South will take place on Feb. 27 in South Carolina, where almost a third of residents are Black.


Presidential candidates former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are competing heavily for votes. This primary is a litmus test for how candidates would fare with Black Americans in a presidential election.

“In South Carolina, you’re looking at an electorate that is going to be about 50 percent African American in the Democratic primary,” said Dr. Adolphus Belk Jr., a professor of political science and director of the African American Studies Program at Winthrop University in South Carolina. “And most of those voters are going to be African American women. So now you have an opportunity to get in front of your most loyal constituency, because there’s been no constituency more loyal to the Democratic Party than Black women voters.”

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After a slight victory over Sanders in the Iowa caucuses followed by a loss by more than 20 pointsin New Hampshire, Clinton announced on Tuesday at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City that ending racial inequality would be the “mission” of her tenure in the White House.

Clinton presented a plan that she said focuses on dismantling systemic racism, including the issues of environmental racism, the school to prison pipeline and criminal justice reform. Prior to her announcement she met with civil rights leaders, including Marc Morial, at the headquarters of the National Urban League.

The release of this detailed plan follows criticism from Black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, who have both publicly endorsed Sanders.

In an essay published Feb. 10 titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Alexander criticizes polices of the Bill Clinton Administration. She argues the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform in 1996 hurt Blacks. Alexander notes that Clinton was a part of that administration and she currently needs a stronger stance on racial equality and criminal justice.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Americans nationwide released Feb. 5 found that in the Democratic race Clinton is at 44 percent, with Sanders at 42 percent and 11 percent undecided.

However, Winthrop University’s “Poll of S.C. Democratic Presidential Primary Likely Voters” taken in November found likely Democratic voters in the state “overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee to become the 45th president.”

The Pew Research Center’s 2012 study “Hillary Clinton’s Career of Comebacks” shows that for most of her career Clinton had a favorable rating among Black Americans exceeding 70 percent.

In December 2007, 82 percent of Blacks had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared with just 43 percent of whites. This was just before the Iowa caucuses.

Though, by May of 2008,as then-Sen. Barack Obama secured his hold on the Democratic nomination, only 59 percent of Blacks had a favorable opinion of Clinton.

Her favorable rating went back up when President Obama appointed Clinton as secretary of state, his most visible cabinet member.

According to Pew:

A year after the election, a survey by Pew Social and Demographic Trends found that Clinton’s overall favorability mark had surged to 66 percent, up 18 points from May 2008. And Clinton’s favorability among blacks 93 percent was as high as Obama’s.

This could be why Clinton is now heavily aligning herself with President Obama. The former senator of New York mentioned the president’s name 21 times during the Democratic debate on Feb. 11. She also reprimanded Sanders for his criticism of Obama and using a tone and language she said a Republican would use.

On Thursday afternoon, preceding the annual White House Black History Month reception, President Obama will meet with leaders from the two generations of civil rights activists. Among attendees will include activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray Mckesson; Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP; Carlos Clanton, president of the National Urban League Young Professionals; Deshaunya Ware, student leader of Concerned Student 1950 at University of Missouri; and John Lewis, United States Representative (D-Ga.).

During a press conference on Feb. 11, Lewis was dismissive of Sanders’ civil rights record.

“Well, to be very frank I don’t want to cut you off but I never saw him. I never met him.”

Lewis then said he did meet Clinton during the civil rights movement.

Rep. James Clyburn, a leading Black Democrat in South Carolina, endorsed Clinton on Friday.Last week, she received an endorsement from the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, a key African American political power coalition.

The Sanders campaign has been focusing on the support of the younger demographic of activists. The democratic socialist wanting a political revolution seems to be appealing to a younger demographic of Black Americans in South Carolina.

“Lots of younger people who are part of the mindset of the Black Lives Matter, they’re going for Sanders,” Sam Sanders, a key member of NPR’s election unit,said on Feb. 14. “I’ve talked to many young Black college-aged voters this week, and a lot of them have major issues with Clinton. I talked with one student who was afraid to admit that he wanted to vote for her.”

Sanders’ appeal to Black college-age voters wasn’t always the case.

In November, while campaigning in North Charleston, South Carolina, Sanders admitted he’d lose the Democratic primary if it took place that month.

“We started way, way, way down,” he said. “I think you’re going to see us picking up a lot of steam here in South Carolina. … I will not deny, if the election were held today, we would lose.”

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At a Netroots Nation event in Phoenix on Aug. 8,Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted Sanders during a speech, demanding more governmental protection be given to Black Americans due to continuing cases of police-related deaths.

He left the stage unable to continue his address. The same day, before a second speaking event, the Sanders campaign announced it had hired Symone Sanders, a 25-year-old forthright Black Lives Matter activist, to be its national press secretary.

Along with public endorsements from Coates and Alexander, Sanders’ supporters include Georgia Sen. Vincent Fort and Ohio Sen. Nina Turner, who both formally supported Clinton, and NAACP Chairman Ben Jealous. Scholar and activist Cornel West penned an essay published on Feb. 13 titled, “Why Brother Bernie Is Better for Black People Than Sister Hillary.” Sanders’endorsements also reflect the current activist movement.

Eric Garner’s police-related death on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island caused nationwide outrage after a video of the deadly confrontation went viral. Last week, his daughter Erica, who has become an activist,endorsed Sanders for president in a four-minute video.

Related Story: Eric Garner’s Daughter: ‘He Was Crying Out to Get Back Home to Us’

Garner campaigned with Sanders Tuesday in South Carolina, along with State Representative Justin T. Bamberg of South Carolina. He is also the lawyer representing the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man killed in South Carolina by a police officer.

New Public Policy Polling surveys of the 12 states that will hold Democratic primaries from March 1-8 find Clinton leading the way in 10 of 12.

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