South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary'
It was exactly what the Clinton campaign wanted to see: the front page of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal featuring an oversized photo of a beaming Hillary, flanked by more than sixty applauding African-Americans in their Sunday best, under the headline Black Pastors Stand Behind Clinton. On Hillary's left, smiling, stood one of the most familiar figures in the local religious community, the Rev. J.W. Sanders, longtime pastor of two churches. Introducing the senator from New York, Sanders had called her "the right choice," a "lady who has proven herself to do exactly what should be done."
Coming just a week and a half before the Oprah-Obama rally, it was a vivid demonstration that while Clinton's support among black voters has dramatically fallen--a December Rasmussen poll gave Obama 51 percent and Clinton 27 percent--it hasn't exactly disappeared. But the photo-op did not tell the story. For all of Clinton's elaborately staged symbolism, there was plenty of messy soul-searching furiously churning away. Even in the Reverend Sanders. After Hillary gave her typically crisp, less-than-poetic spiel to the Spartanburg crowd ("I want to get us back to setting goals for America"), I asked the pastor why he'd gone with her. "We are looking for proven leadership," he said, echoing the vague line I heard from dozens of Clinton supporters in South Carolina. "We are not looking at race or gender. We are looking to do things that would help America, period."
But doesn't it give you qualms, I asked, to bypass Obama? Sanders's preacherly grin dissipated. "In a sense, it does. I'll be very candid with you: it does. Yes, it does have a tinge of conscience on our part in regards to that. But," he added, getting back on message, "we've been trying to move beyond that and support the person because of who or what they've been standing for. We don't want to be pigeonholed or put in a box."
Even less comfortable was State Representative Harold Mitchell, an early Obama supporter who'd defected to Clinton and helped organize the event. "I was originally caught up in the hoopla" over Obama, Mitchell explained. "I tuned her out because here was somebody exciting." But then, around the time Clinton invited him to testify at the first-ever Senate hearing on environmental justice, Mitchell began to believe it was more important to find someone who "can actually get it done. She is the candidate we know we can win the general election with."
Because a black man can't win? "I--what?" Mitchell stammered. "Let's not even talk about the fact that he's an articulate, sharp African-American. Hey, one day. But right now, we don't have time for experimentation."
From the beginning, Clinton has been the fall-back candidate for African-Americans here. She has done all the expected things to woo black voters: held forth in black churches and colleges, called for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, lined up endorsements from preachers and politicians, and deployed her wildly popular husband to the state with increasing urgency. She's talked about the Bible (favorite book: James), and she's winced over the "Corridor of Shame," a particularly desperate and heavily black stretch of I-95 that was the subject of a recent documentary by the same name. It hasn't hurt that Clinton's campaign started early with a "phenomenal, highly professional organization" that Obama's more free-flowing, grassrootsy campaign was hard-pressed to match, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Rock Hill's Winthrop University. But mostly, Huffmon said, "She's attracted voters worried about Obama's viability, or his politics, or his 'blackness.' They love Bill, and that's enough. It's not about her."
That became crystal clear in the spring, when prominent State Senator Robert Ford explained why he'd opted for Clinton over Obama. "Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's on top of the ticket," Ford told the AP. "We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."
Most folks prefer to put it a little less bluntly. At the Spartanburg rally I ask Phyllis Carter, who teaches English at a local two-year college, why she's standing in line to shake Clinton's hand. "I think she's the brightest person, doing what she's doing, and she's done it a long time," Carter said. "She's the best. I think about Obama all the time. But he may not have the experience to do what she can do. The fact that she's a woman--she's special." What about the argument that a woman can't win? "Ah, we're over all that stupid stuff," Carter said.
But what about the other "stupid stuff," I asked. Is it easier for a woman to win than an African-American? Carter paused, pursing her lips. "Maybe." She paused again. "Look at how long we've been here: 1554. Now, we didn't come on boats because we decided we wanted to come and be a part of you. We came on a boat tied left leg to right leg. The accomplishments that we've done since then are pretty amazing when you think about it. We're not going away. We're going to be voted for at some point in the game. One of these days we'll have a President."
Just not this day.