Hillary Clinton dominated in South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary with voters who want to continue President Obama’s policies, an indication that aligning herself with the nation’s first black president resonated with the state’s majority African American electorate, a connection that will continue to be key in several states holding contests Tuesday.
Clinton beat Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) 86 percent to 14 percent among black voters, who comprised 61 percent of primary voters, according to CNN exit poll data. African Americans also comprised the majority of the 70 percent of primary voters who said the next president should continue Obama’s policies. Sanders won among voters who favored a more liberal agenda, but they made up only one in five voters in South Carolina, CNN exit polls show. ABC News reported that 88 percent of black voters said the next president should continue Obama’s policies, compared with about half of white voters. Among white voters, 34 percent called for more liberal policies than Obama.
Although not the only reason Sanders fared so poorly among black voters, the belief that Clinton would build on the work Obama started was often cited, along with her long résumé that included serving as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, by African Americans, who said they planned to vote for her.
Peniel Joseph, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose focus includes race and politics, said that Clinton's relationship with Obama, who brought his former rival into a top job in his administration, is important to black voters.
“Bernie Sanders in the African American community has zero national profile. But black people know the Clintons, and Hillary Clinton is connected to Obama,” Joseph said in an interview before the South Carolina primary. “Black people feel a very firm allegiance to Barack Obama, and the president has all but said that his right successor is Hillary Clinton,” he added. Sanders "can say he’ll guarantee a $15-an-hour minimum wage and let everybody out of prison. It will not matter.”
Sanders, whose campaign has mostly been propelled by frustrated young white voters and liberals, nearly tied Clinton in Iowa and soundly defeated her in New Hampshire, two of the less diverse states in the country.
Sanders continued to outpace Clinton among young voters, winning 2 to 1 among those younger than 30 in South Carolina, but they made up only 15 percent of the electorate on Saturday, CNN exit polls showed. He also fell short in his quest to turn out and capture young African American voters, who backed Clinton 57 percent to 43 percent.
Georgia is one state that will hold its primary Tuesday and the Sanders campaign has invested resources and picked up support in the Atlanta area. Killer Mike, an Atlanta-based rapper, is a top surrogate who has campaigned extensively for Sanders at black colleges. A rally two weeks at Morehouse College, a historically black institution, drew a diverse — but still mostly white — crowd.
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said recent polls suggest that Sanders could do well in the metropolitan Atlanta area because of its concentration of liberals and college students. “But if we’re talking about Sanders's performance among millennial black voters compared to black seniors, the problem is that portion of the electorate is too small to make up the difference that Hillary has with older black, largely female voters.”
Despite Clinton's landslide victory in South Carolina, turnout at Saturday's Democratic primary was 10 percent, way down from 2008, when turnout was 16.4 percent. The Republican primary, which took place a week earlier, drew 20.1 percent.
Hamilton Grant, who co-chaired South Carolina Young Leaders for Sanders, said Sunday that so few young people bothered to vote because they “feel disconnected to the political process and politicians. Some young voters that I've talked to have expressed that they do not like the fact that they only have two candidates to choose from this early in the race and don't feel connected to either Secretary Clinton or Senator Sanders.”
He also thought that Clinton’s linking her fate to Obama’s helped with older black voters.
Obama remains popular among Democratic voters, with significantly higher approval rates among non-whites. A January Washington Post-ABC News poll found that the president had a 90 percent approval rating among non-whites and 76 percent among whites. Non-whites strongly approved of Obama's handling of his job, 68 percent vs. 48 percent for whites.
In the weeks leading up South Carolina’s primary and the Nevada caucus held a week earlier, Clinton began to more frequently and vigorously praise Obama’s efforts and defend his record. At the same time, she and her surrogates accused Sanders of not supporting the president.
At one point during a debate earlier this month, Clinton called attention to Sanders’s view that the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough and his disagreement with Obama over some aspects of his approach to foreign policy. “The kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect [it] from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” Clinton said.
“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders responded, arguing that he has the right to disagree with the president. During an interview with BET several days later, Sanders said that Clinton was "trying to embrace the president as closely as she possibly can" in an effort "to win support from the African American community, where the president is enormously popular."
Grant, 27, who is African American, said he often found himself debating black voters about whether Sanders wanted to undo Obama’s policies.
“Typically it would be, like, ‘Oh, Senator Sanders is trying to restart the Affordable Care Act.’ And then you’d have say, ‘No, he’s trying to add to it. He helped write the health-care act.’ ”
“I think because African Americans hold President Obama in such a high regard, when Secretary Clinton talks about continuing his legacy so frequently, black voters feel more inclined to want that same thing,” he said. “Senator Sanders wants to carry out that legacy as well but you don't hear him riding the president's coattail.”
Benjamin Jealous, a former NAACP leader who is a top surrogate for the Sanders campaign, argued Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Obama’s legacy would not be enough in a general election fight with someone like Republican businessman Donald Trump.
“You cannot beat Donald Trump playing defense. You have to play offense. You have to say, 'I want to extend what the last president did.' That’s why Bernie is actually drawing people to him and building a movement,” Jealous said.