The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are black voters ‘fired up’ for Hillary Clinton?

U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claps along with the audience as she arrives at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, United States, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young
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Edith Childs is the Greenwood, S.C. city council woman credited with giving Barack Obama his signature call-and-response chant used during his historic 2008 presidential campaign.

The question facing Hillary Clinton's campaign eight years later -- one whose answer may define the margin between success and failure: are Childs, and voters like her, now "Fired up! Ready to go!" for Obama's primary opponent in 2016?

Clinton is scheduled to visit to Childs's home state Wednesday, with an itinerary that will include an annual conference of Democratic women in South Carolina, and a meeting with a group of minority small business owners.

It's her first campaign trip to the state since 2008, when she not only lost the state’s primary but first saw an exodus of black voters from her presidential campaign -- an exodus that helped cost her the race.

This time around, black voters will be a key constituency in Clinton’s effort to win the White House.

The former secretary of state is hoping to keep together the coalition of young, female and minority voters that twice carried Obama to victory. The visit to South Carolina, Clinton's first to a state with a sizable black population, is an effort to start building excitement early among black voters, whose turnout rates in presidential elections have grown steadily during the past two decades to a record high in 2012.

[Clinton is banking on Obama coalition to win]

Weeks before the Jan. 26, 2008, South Carolina primary, Clinton held a commanding lead over Obama, who was still relatively unknown to black voters. She led Obama 52 percent to 39 percent among African Americans in a Washington Post-ABC News conducted in December 2007. By the end of February a Post-ABC News poll had Obama leading among black voters 62 to 30 percent.

Black voters made up half of the registered Democrats in South Carolina, and the primary was contentious, an undercurrent of racial friction. The Clintons, who had always enjoyed strong support from black voters, found themselves struggling to compete with Obama’s growing momentum among African Americans -- and, in their frustration, occasionally becoming their own worst enemies.

Bill Clinton, who campaigned for his wife in South Carolina, had always enjoyed strong support from black voters during his campaigns and his presidency. But he angered some African American political activists who thought Clinton was being dismissive of Obama’s campaign by noting that Jesse Jackson also had won South Carolina’s primaries in his two unsuccessful presidential runs -- which some took to mean that Clinton didn’t take Obama’s campaign seriously. Hillary Clinton was criticized for comments that some suggested gave more credit for civil rights victories to the legislative success of former president Lyndon B. Johnson than to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Clinton won majorities among white and Hispanic Democrats. But Obama won the state's black voters by even bigger margins. Buoyed by a whopping 78 percent of the black vote, he dominated the South Carolina primary, winning the state 55 to 27 percent over Clinton. And the trend continued across the country: Obama won an average of 82 percent support among African Americans across all primaries and caucuses where exit polls were conducted.

One of those voters was Childs.

A political pioneer in her own right -- says she’s the first woman of color to ever serve on the Greenwood City Council – Childs, 66, makes no apologies for choosing Obama over Clinton in their testy primary battle seven years ago.

“It was not about her,” she said, adding that she has long admired Clinton. (“She’s a gutsy woman …. I can’t stand a cowardly woman,”said Childs.) “The minute I heard Senator Obama speak, it was April 13, 2007, there was just something about him that touched my spirit and I said, he’s the one.”

Polls suggest that Clinton remains popular among black voters. About three in four African Americans viewed Clinton favorably in a Washington Post-ABC news poll in early 2014. About half of those respondents gave her “strongly” favorable ratings, although not quite as high as the roughly three-quarters who strongly favored Obama. And in a recent Gallup poll, Clinton got her most favorable reviews from nonwhite men and women. Indeed, nonwhite women gave Clinton a higher favorable rating – 71 percent – than white women, 50 percent.

Black voter turnout, which has been on the rise since the 1990s, reached record highs during Obama two presidential contests. In 2012, 66 percent of black voters cast ballots, higher even than the 64 percent who voted in 2008. In the president’s last election, black turnout surpassed white turnout rates for the first time in history, according to Census Bureau surveys.

Clinton is hoping that trend continues -- and that black voters will be as 'fired up' to back her as they were to back Obama. And as she heads back to South Carolina this time around, she can count on Edith Childs. "I am [fired up] now," Child said in a recent phone interview. “Eight years ago I wasn’t, but I can support her now."

Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill contributed.