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How Hillary Clinton won the battle for the black vote in South Carolina

·White House Correspondent
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hillary Clinton began her campaign to win South Carolina years ago.

African-American voters carried Clinton to an overwhelming victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in the state’s Democratic presidential primary. African-Americans typically make up the majority of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate and, according to CNN’s exit polling, Clinton won with the support of 84 percent of the state’s black community.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, was famously dubbed America’s “first black president” because of his background, behavior and the admiration he earned from some in the African-American community during his time in office. But fond memories of Bill and the 1990s aren’t what cemented Hillary Clinton’s edge with black voters in South Carolina. Clinton managed to build a base in the Palmetto State through a years-long, under-the-radar operation to stay in touch and gather support from African-American leaders in the state she lost to Barack Obama in 2008.

Sanders, on the other hand, struggled to gain traction with black voters in South Carolina, hampered by the very thing that has lifted him elsewhere: his position as an outsider and newcomer on the state’s political scene. Attempts at outreach came late and were described by some local African-American leaders as ham-fisted.

The Clinton campaign’s South Carolina ground operation launched on the day she announced her presidential bid last April. At the time, she was the clear frontrunner and had the fundraising to match. That early edge let Clinton hire experienced local staff and set up shop in South Carolina, long before Sanders was seen as anything more than a long-shot challenger with little national profile.

“We were in this state first. The day we launched this campaign, we had staff in the state,” said Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of states and political engagement.

But Clinton’s presence in South Carolina began long before that day. Bill Clinton won the Palmetto State primaries in 1992 and 1996, which allowed Hillary Clinton to build relationships in the state and get to know its politics and leading personages. In fact, Clinton’s ties in the state predate her husband’s presidential bid. Clay Middleton, a native South Carolinian who served as state director of Clinton’s campaign, noted she first came into the state during the 1970s, while working as a young lawyer with the Children’s Defense Fund. And as first lady of Arkansas, Clinton co-chaired a task force on infant mortality with former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley.

Slideshow: Clinton wins big in South Carolina >>>

“She’s been working in and with South Carolinians since the ’70s, but every decade since then, she’s been in and out of the state working with people,” Middleton said. “She has deep roots here, and it has blossomed over the years.”

But all that support seemingly vanished in 2008, when Clinton faced off against Obama, the first African-American major-party presidential primary frontrunner. Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, attributed Clinton’s loss that year to the simple fact that voters had — and wanted to take — the chance to elect the first black president.

“Before that possibility came, Hillary was actually doing quite well,” Darby explained. “She had nailed down a good number of endorsements.”

Nevertheless, even after being beaten by Obama in South Carolina, Clinton never retreated from South Carolina, Darby said.

“I don’t think Hillary’s ever been off the ground except for the little while when there was a tiff after the ’08 primary. She has stayed in touch with the community. She started laying groundwork for this run, oh, probably three or four years ago. She’s had people circulating. … She’s talked to the right folks,” Darby said, adding, “I don’t think South Carolina ever entirely left the Clintons. It might have parked them in the corner for one election, but they’ve maintained good relationships.”

In contrast, a source said the Sanders campaign did not begin to establish a large presence in the state until last September.

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Hillary Clinton in a group prayer led by the Rev. Isaac Holt, left, at the Royal Baptist Church Family Life Center in North Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, along with state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, second from right, and state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

Sanders’ allies acknowledged he didn’t have the support of South Carolina’s older African-American church leaders and established groups. The rapper Killer Mike, whose music mixes political messages and hard-driving hip-hop beats, campaigned for Sanders in the state and sought to draw the support of a younger African-American audience. Killer Mike made the case that Sanders’ message echoes that of Martin Luther King Jr. — even if the “idols” of King’s movement are with Clinton.

“For me, the policy that Dr. King was about at the time of his death, the Poor People’s Campaign, workers’ rights, civil and social justice for all people, are best accomplished with the Sanders campaign,” Killer Mike said. “If you take the idols themselves out of the equation and only leave the policies and principles that they taught for the last 50 years, I’d not see how any rational black person could vote for anyone but Bernie Sanders.”

But in South Carolina, many black voters clearly resisted Sanders’ “political revolution.” While Sanders’ promise to take on the political establishment has helped fuel his challenge to Clinton in other parts of the country, that outsider status may have actually hurt him in South Carolina’s African-American community.

JA Moore is a 30-year-old African-American South Carolina native who serves as vice chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party. As of Wednesday, Moore said he had not decided how he will vote in the primary. But in Charleston, where he moved a little over a decade ago, Moore says he is still viewed as an outsider.

“Me not being from Charleston, they call me a ‘come ya,’ and people that are from here, they call them a ‘been ya,’” Moore said, using phrases from the local Geechee dialect. “I think a lot of times people look at Secretary Clinton as someone that’s been here before. They’ve seen her, they recognize her, they have a certain level of comfort with her because they know her. … I think with Sen. Sanders, he’s a ‘come ya.’”

Addressing recent racial wounds in the state, only some of which have made national news, has been a tricky thing for insider and outsider candidate alike. In April of last year, a black man named Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed as he ran from a white police officer in North Charleston. Footage of the shooting energized the Black Lives Matter movement in South Carolina. Then, two months later, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people at “Mother Emanuel,” a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston.

These incidents have had a “transformative” effect on South Carolina’s political landscape, said Moore, whose sister was killed in the church shooting.

“We’re going to be forever affected by Emanuel and forever affected by the tragedy of Walter Scott as well,” Moore said, adding: “Friends of mine have called me throughout the country and said, ‘JA, why aren’t people here in Charleston, why aren’t they doing what happened in Baltimore or in Ferguson? Why aren’t people looting the streets and burning things down? Why does it seem to be the African-American community is so subdued in Charleston?’”

Moore said there’s no question Charleston’s black population is upset.

“We’re angry. We’re frustrated. We’re devastated because of this tragedy,” Moore said. “I want to make sure that’s clear. We’re angry, but … we’re looking for substantive change and substantive actions to happen because of it.”

Along with the issues of racism and police brutality that have made headlines, local African-American leaders who spoke with Yahoo News listed a slew of things the community in South Carolina is concerned about: poor quality of schools, rural communities that lack access to clean drinking water, poverty and high incarceration rates.

Clinton and Sanders had to navigate this fraught landscape as they sought to win the state’s black vote. And both of them have stumbled as they tried to connect with a community where the list of grievances is long and emotions are running high.

Heading into the South Carolina primary, the two Democratic candidates both made targeted pitches designed to address the specific concerns of African-American voters.

In recent weeks, Clinton has begun discussing the need to comprehensively address “systemic racism” by toppling economic and institutional “barriers.” Clinton has also campaigned with African-American mothers who lost their children to incidents of alleged police brutality and racial profiling and has promised to take on these issues. Her campaign has said some of the new elements of Clinton’s platform came after months of conversations with these so-called “Mothers of the Movement.”

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Clinton appears at a campaign event at the Central Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday with mothers of victims of gun violence. From left: Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; and Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin. At right is former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Bakari Sellers, a Democratic former member of the state Legislature who mounted an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2014, noted that Clinton “didn’t have” these messages as part of her platform in 2008. Sellers, who is a Clinton supporter, praised her for turning to black women as she crafted her outreach to the community and predicted it would help her win the primary.

“One of the problems [in 2008] was that she didn’t go to where … her heart aligned and … the heart of the African-American community, which are African-American women,” Sellers said. “African-American women … participate at higher rates, they register at higher rates, and they drive the political discourse in our community now. And Hillary Clinton [is reaching out to these women now], and that is why she’s going to be very successful on Saturday.”

Despite Clinton’s tailored pitch, she did not manage to win over all of South Carolina’s African-American activist community. On Wednesday evening, local Black Lives Matter activists bought $500 tickets to a campaign fundraiser in order to confront Clinton about a comment she made during the 1996 presidential primary describing some juvenile criminals as “super predators” who needed to be brought “to heel.” Ashley Williams, the activist who took the stage at the fundraiser, was removed by Secret Service, but Clinton subsequently apologized for her remark and said she “shouldn’t have used those words” and “wouldn’t use them today.”

The protest was an extension of continuing criticism Clinton has faced for her role in pushing for her husband’s 1994 crime bill that many activists see as a major contributor to high incarceration rates in the black community. Clinton has disavowed much of that crime law.

Sellers said it was good to see activists hold Clinton “accountable.” However, he also noted Sanders voted for the crime law as a member of the House of Representatives and expressed hope that Black Lives Matter allies would raise the issue.

“I’m sure they will take that to Bernie Sanders as well and question him on why,” Sellers said.

Like Clinton, Sanders has tried to specifically address the needs of African-American voters in his platform. Sanders has increasingly highlighted criminal justice reform and police brutality in his speeches.

“He’s … saying that the policy of fair pay affects black people, the policy of ending the drug war affects black people, the policy of ending mandatory minimums on our federal sentencing guidelines affects black people,” said Killer Mike.

The rapper also praised how Sanders reacted when he was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters last August, by comparison with Clinton’s handling of the protest on Wednesday.

“When Black Lives Matter took the stage with Sen. Sanders, he shook their hands, he smiled, he stepped to the side, he listened,” he said. Clinton, instead “had the Secret Service escort that young woman out.”

Sanders and his campaign also highlighted his youthful activism in the civil rights movement. Earlier this month, pictures were unearthed showing Sanders being arrested at a 1963 civil rights protest in Chicago.

But Sanders’ past activism wasn’t enough to win voters in South Carolina, said Sellers, whose father, Cleveland Sellers, helped lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“Your talking point to the black community can’t be, you know, ‘I marched with Dr. King.’ … That’s cool. My dad made cheese sandwiches at the March on Washington. What else? Tell me more,” Sellers said. “Like, you have a picture of getting arrested. I thank you so much for your efforts in Chicago, but I mean, all I’ve got to do is go down the street to find a civil rights hero in South Carolina.”

Sanders has also faced criticism for his relentless focus on income inequality and regulating Wall Street, which some charge neglects the effects of racism on creating inequality.

Minister Kirsten John Foy, the northeast regional director at the National Action Network, said this is partly why some of the activists who attended Rev. Al Sharpton’s breakfast with Sanders in New York on Feb. 10 were only partially impressed.

“The economic piece of it is great. We love it. We think it’s right on the money,” Foy said of Sanders’ message.

However, when it came to racial issues, Foy said Sanders lacked specifics. He also claimed some of the NAN leadership felt Sanders was insufficiently pro-gun control, a criticism leveled by the Clinton campaign.

“I think he has gone out of his way to show that he’s sensitive to our political needs, and that was what I think was impressive about the meeting. But there’s still like gaps in his connectivity,” Foy said.

While Foy said while some of the NAN leadership backs Sanders, he and others support Clinton. Because the group is divided, Sharpton has elected to remain neutral and refrain from endorsing in the Democratic primary.

“He’s willing to say all the right things like, ‘I’m going to end institutional racism.’ But how do you do that? You don’t just do that with an economic message,” Foy said of Sanders. “You have to speak to the various disparities and what you’re going to do about them. And I think Hillary has a better handle on that piece.”

In addition to problems with his message, in South Carolina, the Sanders campaign seems to have had issues with the delivery of that message.

A source told Yahoo News that an influential member of the state Legislature received several direct appeals from Clinton asking for an endorsement. They were taken aback when the Sanders campaign reached out and the call came from the senator’s wife rather than Sanders himself.

Darby, the vice president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, said he’s seen a “clumsiness” in Sanders’ “approach to the leadership” in South Carolina’s black community.

“Let me put this very carefully,” Darby began, “Sometimes my good and well-meaning liberal brothers and sisters get the feeling that they know what’s good for black folk. … They don’t try to reach out. They don’t try to check in and affirm, ‘Do you really think that this is good for you too? What do you think of our plans? … I’ve picked up little whiffs of that in the Sanders campaign, and I don’t think it’s served them well. … You have to meet people on their terms.”

Darby said the only contacts he received from the Sanders campaign came from people who were “white” and “out of state.”

“Nobody really local reached out to me. These were folks that were brought … into South Carolina from the campaign. … This was not African-American outreach. This was white outreach,” Darby said.

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Clinton greets supporters after a town hall meeting on Thursday at Cumberland United Methodist Church in Florence, S.C. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Dot Scott, the president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, was similarly critical of Sanders’ team. Scott, who admitted being family friends with Clinton’s South Carolina state director, said she only had one contact with the Sanders campaign, and it went “sour.”

Like many South Carolinians, Scott has received calls at home from phone bankers. She said one of these entreaties from the Sanders campaign led her to go off on a 10-minute tirade and demand an apology.

“One of my experiences that I think I won’t forget for a long time is a call that I got from the Sanders campaign. This person that called asked me was I voting for Sen. Sanders. I said no. I was voting for Secretary Clinton. The phone went silent for a little bit,” Scott recounted. “You could hear this person struggling to come up with what they’re going to say next. … They call that a real pregnant pause, nine months’ worth of pregnant pause. And he finally came back and he says to me, ‘You know, Senator Sanders is for welfare.’”

This did not provoke a positive reaction from Scott.

“I lost it. So you’re going to assume either from my voice or from my selection that the most important thing that Sen. Sanders is going to be working on that would interest me is more welfare?” Scott said. “I went on to read him the riot act. Listen, I’m not only a college graduate; I’ve got a masters. My daughter is a college graduate. I have never had one ounce of welfare before. I ain’t never lived in public housing. None of those things.”

According to Scott, the Sanders supporter who called her “didn’t know what to say.”

“By the time he hung up, it was ten minutes later,” she said. “I got one of the managers to call me back and apologize.”

Scott made it clear she does not believe that is something “Sanders would tell them to say” and added that the call probably came from a volunteer or low-ranking staffer. Still, she said it is the only contact she has had with the Sanders campaign, while Clinton’s team has made much more substantive outreach.

The NAACP is a nonpartisan organization, so Scott said she does not attend political events and did not want to make any public endorsement. Still, Scott claimed she regularly received personal invitations to Clinton campaign events and has not had “one iota” of similar contact from Sanders.

“I have gotten every invitation from someone when Clinton has been here,” Scott said. “I’m on that invite list. The Sanders folks, no.”

Sanders’ insurgency in the earlier primary states has been fueled by the support of young voters. Both Killer Mike and Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president and CEO who is now also a Sanders campaign surrogate, said they believed Sanders’ message was resonating better with young black voters than with their elders.

“When you look at black people under 30, you see them turning to Bernie disproportionately across the country,” Jealous said.

“At the end of the day, the Clintons are a lot like Coca-Cola. They’re a Southern brand. We all know they taste good, but it’s worth asking yourself: Is that brand really good for you? … Fighting a powerful brand that happens to be the most powerful dynasty in American politics is always an uphill battle,” he said.

A recent NBC News poll showed Clinton was actually doing better than Sanders among South Carolina’s younger black population.

For his part, Killer Mike said he understands why older blacks have gravitated toward Clinton. But he can’t comprehend why the youth aren’t getting on board with Sanders.

“If we can’t win our grandmothers over, that’s fine, because their leaders and their icons have told them to go another way,” Killer Mike explained. “But if you’re young, if you’re sensible, if you’re an African-American, that’s currently in the fight for freedom, justice and liberation, I don’t understand why his policies will not connect.”

Darby, the Charleston NAACP leader, suggested Sanders’ message could have reached black voters in South Carolina if he had had more time. However, at this point, he argued Clinton’s experience and operation in the state were simply too strong to compete with.

“I think Bernie Sanders has done a good job of trying to come up to speed, and I think given a little bit more time, he might actually get there,” Darby explained. “But the Clintons have the time and the longevity. … She’s a known quantity. … She knows how to do the retail politics of South Carolina. She knows how to do the retail politics of the black church, and so she’s presented herself well.”

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