Betting on black: Could Clinton’s hold over African-American vote shift to Sanders?

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (L) speaks directly to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  © Mike Segar
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton can each claim a victory after New Hampshire and Iowa, where electorates were 90 percent white, but to win the next primary they’re also vying for the votes of South Carolina’s sizable African American community.

While the most recent polling in the Palmetto State shows Clinton as the clear frontrunner, the data is over two weeks old, meaning it doesn’t account for the neck-and-neck result in Iowa and Sanders’ landslide triumph in New Hampshire.

An NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll conducted January 17-23 had Clinton at 64 percent and Sanders at 27 percent among 446 likely voters, and a CBS News-YouGov poll conducted January 17-21 showed Clinton at 60 percent to Sanders’ 38 percent among 388 likely voters and a 9.4 margin of error. 

The small sample sizes and datedness of the polls mean anything is possible come voting day on February 27 – and the wild card will likely be the black vote. African-Americans in South Carolina account for 28 percent of the population, a significant minority.

Each candidate is lining up as many African-American endorsements as they can get, and Clinton has a running start with much of the establishment support from groups like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which a majority of its 46 members have already endorsed her. CBC Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina) said “more than a dozen” of the members of Congress would stump for Clinton in South Carolina, The Hill reported. 

“It’s good to have new friends, but I would prefer to have true friends,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York), a CBC member, said on a Wednesday conference call organized by the Clinton campaign, according to The Hill.

“Hillary Clinton has been a true friend to the African-American community for more than 40 years. During that same period of time, Bernie Sanders has been largely missing in action,” Jeffries said. 

“People there know her better,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a Congressional Black Caucus member who plans to stump for Clinton in South Carolina, said on the call. “I think the great majority of African-American voters, at this moment, at this time, would be more inclined to support the secretary.”

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC also endorsed Clinton. Its chairman, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), told The Hill that Clinton received 18 votes from the 20-member board, while two abstained.

What may be even more crucial are the endorsements from South Carolina politicians. As of Wednesday, Clinton has the support of South Carolina state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, who issued a statement that read: "Hillary understands the concerns of our communities and won't make promises that she can't keep. Unlike Bernie Sanders, Hillary isn't new to issues facing African Americans." 

But arguably the most influential Congressman in South Carolina, Rep. James Clyburn, has yet to voice any endorsement, telling The Hill he will “come to a decision” next week.

“Mr. Clyburn is so well respected in South Carolina. Anyone that he would endorse would get significant votes because of it,” CBC Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield told The Hill. “Many of these are first-time voters, and Sen. Sanders’s message resonates with a younger generation because of the promises that he’s making.” 

Sanders is picking up steam of his own, however, with endorsements from Princeton University professor Cornel West and, most recently, NAACP President Ben Jealous, who he met with on Wednesday. In a separate meeting the same day, Sanders met with Rev. Al Sharpton, but no endorsement was made.

Wednesday was another good day for Sanders, who gained supportive statements from black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic magazine.

"I will be voting for Sen. Sanders," Coates told Democracy Now, despite previous criticisms over Sanders’s refusal to support reparations for slavery.

Meanwhile, another prominent black voice turned up the heat against Clinton.

"This is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders,” wrote Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” in an article for The Nation, titled "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote."

“Sanders opposed the 1996 welfare-reform law,” she wrote. “He also opposed bank deregulation and the Iraq War, both of which Hillary supported, and both of which have proved disastrous. In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it.”

While Alexander did not outright endorse Sanders, the comments from her and Coates could conceivably give more credence to the notion that Clinton must not take her perceived advantage for granted, and that African-American voters can still change their allegiances.

For example, in a surprise turnaround, South Carolina legislator Justin Bamberg endorsed Sanders after reneging on his support for Clinton. Bamberg is also the lawyer representing the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot dead while running away from a white police officer in 2015.

With the last Democratic debate before the South Carolina primary happening Thursday February 11, there remains nearly two weeks for much more to happen that could shape the next big vote, which in turn could bring unstoppable momentum for the next presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.