Clinton’s advantage in Monday night's caucus does not appear rooted in broad antipathy toward Sanders among nonwhite Democrats, as more than 7 in 10 of those in Iowa said each candidate shares their values. But health care stood out as one issue on which Clinton has an advantage over Sanders among Democrats of color. By a modest 35 percent to 20 percent margin, more said they trust only Clinton to handle health care rather than trusting only Sanders; 4 in 10 said they trust both candidates. White voters were evenly split on this question, with 25 percent apiece trusting Clinton and Sanders exclusively.
A national Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month found Clinton holding a roughly 40-point lead among nonwhite Democratic-leaning voters. While most of these voters said they felt comfortable about either Sanders or Clinton serving as president, more than twice as many said they felt “very comfortable” about Clinton than Sanders (47 percent vs. 19 percent).
In less than four weeks, Sanders and Clinton will face off in the South Carolina primary, where black voters make up more than half of the Democratic electorate. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll released last week showed Clinton with the support of 74 percent of black voters to Sanders’s 17 percent. Overall, Clinton got 64 percent support among likely Democratic voters to 27 percent for Sanders.
“South Carolina is her firewall, and right now that firewall is intact,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Clinton’s lead among whites is much smaller, 52 percent to 41 percent for Sanders. But Miringoff said the poll of 2,508 likely voters conducted Jan. 17 through Jan. 23, indicates that the percentage of black voters in South Carolina has grown over the past eight years, from about 55 percent to 60 percent.
Sanders has acknowledged his need to do better at connecting with African American and Latino voters. Although he and his supporters frequently note his involvement with civil rights activists during the 1960s, as well as his progressive voting record, Sanders did not have a national profile and has spent his three-decade political career representing a state that is 95 percent white.
It was in South Carolina in 2008 that Clinton’s campaign stumbled and never recovered. While campaigning for his wife in the Palmetto State, former president Bill Clinton took a few jabs at then-Sen. Barack Obama that were seen as racially insensitive by black political leaders and voters. Clinton saw her commanding lead melt away and Obama won the state decisively.
A big part of the reason that African American voters abandoned Clinton for Obama was his upset victory eight years ago in Iowa, which proved that a significant percentage of white voters would vote for a black presidential candidate. Political scientists like Miringoff don’t see black voters similarly flocking to Sanders, who, despite his strong showing in Iowa and expected victory next week in New Hampshire, has far less name recognition among black voters and doesn't represent the racial pride and progress that Obama's candidacy did.
Good performances by Sanders in the first two states will indeed cause “people around the country to take a look at him with a fresh lens. That’s why South Carolina becomes very important for [Clinton] to reverse the trends in states where there are fewer people of color,” Miringoff said. “She can’t wait to get to South Carolina.”