Rock Hill, South Carolina—Picturesque Winthrop University buzzed with pride and energy on the first weekend in November, when the “First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum,” moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, came to campus. State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter buzzed too, but with a different kind of dynamism. The veteran Orangeburg Democrat, who is staying neutral in the primary, was working to redirect the spotlight from the Hillary Clinton–Bernie Sanders–Martin O’Malley show and shine it on a town hall she had convened on “the New South,” a term she uses with a little bit of irony.
Cobb-Hunter was a leader in the long fight to remove the Confederate flag from State Capitol grounds, and it was only after the massacre of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist in Charleston last June that she succeeded. She’s proud of this accomplishment, but focused on the work yet to be done. “Yes, the flag finally came down. But we haven’t done anything about the flag agenda,” she tells me, referring to the conditions that keep too many African Americans in poverty; that let a school “safety officer” in nearby Spring Valley throw a young black girl across a classroom for being “disruptive”; that led a miserable young white man to walk into a church and murder nine black Christians who’d welcomed him to pray.
“I’m focused less on the election than on the electorate,” Cobb-Hunter says. In a sharp purple suit, the popular legislator is easy to spot; our interview was interrupted by friends and admirers coming by to whisper in her ear or just give her a hug. The town hall she put together included experts from across the South discussing social justice, climate change, immigration, and LGBT equality, among other subjects, and it took me a while to realize that they were there not to see the presidential candidates, but because Cobb-Hunter had asked them to come speak.
That included the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the nationally influential Moral Mondays movement, who anchored the first panel. Echoing Cobb-Hunter, Barber describes himself as “radically independent at this point.” “The NAACP doesn’t endorse candidates; we endorse ideas and values,” he says. “What I do know is, the masses of people in movements better make sure that we push to have a grown-up conversation about race and class in this election, not just a sidebar.”
Thanks in part to activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, that conversation is happening—frequently and with urgency—on the campaign trail. Democratic candidates have been repeatedly forced to answer questions about racial disparities in everything from housing to criminal justice to education. Whether or not their answers are satisfying to movement activists is very much unsettled. So too is the complex and fluid dynamic between long-term movement building and short-term electoral campaigns.
What is clear is that, in order to win the White House and make inroads into the Republican majorities in Congress, the Democratic Party will need black voters to turn out in high numbers—and they’ll need black women in particular. In 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other group, and they went 96 percent for President Obama. They are becoming, for Democrats, what white evangelical men are for Republicans: the cornerstone of the party’s base.
But whereas Republicans have long catered to their base, Democrats have too often taken black women voters for granted—or spoken to them only in last-minute appeals instead of sustained voter outreach and education. “It’s always GOTV [get out the vote] with our community at the end,” Cobb-Hunter says. “But if you invest in reaching voters, bringing them along, you don’t need as much GOTV—they get out, because they know it matters.”
Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns are making efforts in this regard (O’Malley’s operation has a much smaller footprint in the state), and Clinton in particular seems to be courting black women to her side. How well she connects with them will obviously shape the primary results. And if Clinton ends up as the party’s nominee, she won’t just need black women to cast a ballot for her next year; she’ll need them to form a core of her volunteer army. She’ll need, in other words, the enthusiastic support of leaders like Cobb-Hunter.
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There may be no better place than South Carolina to take the temperature of African-American Democrats in advance of the 2016 presidential race. The state was the epicenter of Clinton’s 2008 implosion. Seven years later, it’s seen as a firewall of sorts—the place where Clinton’s strong black support is expected to reveal the demographic holes in the coalition behind Sanders, which is still overwhelmingly white. That’s quite a flip to the script.
Not only did South Carolina go overwhelmingly for Senator Barack Obama in 2008—he won 78 percent of the black vote and a quarter of the white vote, as well as a majority of whites under 30—it was also where, for many people, the Clinton campaign’s racially charged politicking crossed a line. Hours after Obama swept to victory, Bill Clinton sought to diminish that achievement by noting that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice too. Of course, South Carolina was a largely ignored caucus state back in the 1980s, but that changed with the prestigious “first in the South” primary engineered by Representative Jim Clyburn as a counterbalance to the influence of “first in the nation” white states like Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s the landmark contest Obama won. After Clinton’s condescending comparison, Jake Tapper quipped on ABC: “Boy, I can’t understand why anyone would think the Clintons are running a race-baiting campaign to paint Obama as ‘the black candidate.’”
African-American voters recoiled at the slap from a man they once loyally supported. The next day Caroline Kennedy, whose father is still a hero to older African Americans, endorsed Obama in the pages of The New York Times. A month later, Representative John Lewis, a Selma hero and Clinton loyalist, switched his allegiance to Obama. Clinton’s support among African- American voters steadily declined, and her campaign never recovered.
“I think Bill Clinton did not realize the pent-up emotions that were present in the black community [on behalf of Obama],” Clyburn says now, rather magnanimously in my opinion. Seven years later, the veteran Democrat from the Gullah low country, who is staying neutral at least through the South Carolina primary, says he believes that black South Carolinians have forgiven the former president and will back Hillary Clinton. “She’s doing extremely well with the faith community, by the way,” he tells me. Cobb-Hunter agrees: “I think the bitterness has subsided for voters here,” she says.
Beyond South Carolina, Clinton may find more resistance—especially among black women. “They are more likely to tell me, spontaneously, that they haven’t gotten over 2008 than black men are,” says MSNBC’s Joy Reid, author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide. “But they are also the most likely to carry her over the finish line next year.”
“I expect black women will settle into the Clinton camp,” says Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which focuses on building leadership among African-American women. When I note that “settling” isn’t the same as surging to support her, Carr replies diplomatically, “I think she still needs to do some relationship-building…. She had black women in her corner in 2008, but then she lost a lot of them. And then the president really invested in this voter bloc. She needs to do the same.” Carr doesn’t think Clinton is there quite yet.
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When I traveled the state in early November, most of the dozens of black voters I spoke with were avid Clinton fans. That matches the polls: Clinton is ahead of Sanders 72 to 18 percent in the state, and she’s leading 86 to 11 percent among black voters. On the issues, Clinton is reasonably strong. Her bold early stands on voting rights, criminal-justice issues, and immigration reform demonstrated that she’s aiming to reassemble the Obama coalition, not the Bill Clinton coalition, which sought to bring white working-class voters back to the Democratic Party. Moreover, the former Arkansas resident, Children’s Defense Fund chair, and New York senator is fluent in the concerns of the black community and culturally comfortable within it.
That’s a contrast with Sanders, who is beginning to assemble an impressive African-American leadership group in South Carolina that includes state Representatives Terry Alexander and Wendell Gilliard. Nationally, Sanders has also picked up the support of former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, an African-American progressive admired by the multiracial left.
The Vermont senator is trying hard—and may be better than Clinton on some issues like the death penalty, which Clinton still supports in “very limited and rare” cases—but he doesn’t always connect. One morning at Winthrop, I watched him give a speech emphasizing inclusivity to a racially mixed group of South Carolina Democratic women. It was heartfelt but heavy on statistics: 40 percent of black children live in poverty; 80 percent of young people didn’t vote in 2014; rising numbers of senior women are living in poverty.
At one point, when Sanders wondered out loud why he gets so much support from young voters, a fired-up black female supporter shouted admiringly: “You’re like a grandpa! You’re like a grandpa!” The crowd laughed and clapped, but Sanders didn’t reply. She stepped it up. “Be my grandpa!” Sanders just went on with his speech. He doesn’t do call-and-response, at least not yet. At the end, he got warm but not overwhelming applause.
Clinton knows how to connect better. At the “First in the South” forum, she came onstage and made a beeline for the first row of the audience to shake some hands before the one-on-one conversation began. Almost immediately, she defended the president: “I feel very strongly that President Obama doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the great job he’s done, and I want to build on the progress that he’s made,” she said to applause. Elsewhere, the former secretary of state has said pointedly that she’s not running for Obama’s third term—but not here.
When Maddow brought up the young black girl thrown from her desk by a South Carolina police officer last month and asked whether cops belong in classrooms, Clinton pivoted to a discussion of her meetings with mothers who have lost their children to violence, working in Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. She went on to decry the police killings of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Eric Garner in New York. Former state representative Bakari Sellers, an avid Obama supporter in 2008 who’s in Clinton’s camp this time around, leaned over to me and whispered: “That’s why she’s at 70 percent in South Carolina.” In the end, Clinton backed having police in classrooms in extreme situations. But I’m not sure anyone remembers that.
The next day, at historically black Claflin University, to an audience heavy on well-dressed professionals, Clinton pledged to be “the small-business president” who would support “women- and minority-owned businesses.” She promised to undo the Obama administration’s student-loan policies, which hurt historically black colleges like Claflin by tightening credit requirements for parents. And she touted Clyburn’s “10-20-30” antipoverty plan, in which 10 percent of federal discretionary funds are directed toward communities where 20 percent of the population has lived in poverty for more than 30 years—a plan she had notably endorsed earlier in the week in an op-ed for Ebony magazine.
When the event’s moderator, CNN’s Roland Martin—a charter-school backer who sits on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst—asked about the issue, Clinton acknowledged her previous support for charters. But she also raised a complaint: “Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids—or if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.” To fervent applause, she called out the state’s tragic “Corridor of Shame,” the rural stretch along Interstate 95 where black students are condemned to dilapidated public schools.
In the end, Clinton got a standing ovation, and that was before she gamely tried to do the dance known as “the Wobble”—“tried” is the operative word—onstage with Martin after the event.
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But even at Claflin, I could see signs that Clinton’s support among black women isn’t as broad and as deep as it could be. The venue was small and packed with older black women, some carrying copies of Clinton’s books for her to sign. I met three young college women who were enthusiastic Clinton supporters, but they were disappointed that only 50 of the 300 tickets were reserved for Claflin students. “I think young women are fired up—we’re fired up!—but I wish more could have been exposed,” senior Kristin Paquette told me. “We have a big gym. This could have been so much bigger.”
There’s a common feeling that Clinton hasn’t reached deep enough into these communities to develop personal relationships, especially with women who “might watch Empire instead of a Democratic debate,” as Cobb-Hunter aide Terris Riley put it. The Clinton campaign’s preference for smaller, tightly controlled settings has a downside. In the end, the issues-packed town hall got very little media coverage. Meanwhile, literally next door, historically black South Carolina State was playing North Carolina State in a football game before a large crowd. “I don’t know why she didn’t go over there,” Sellers observes. “Even if she just pulled up on the track and waved to people, it would have been huge.”
Glynda Carr says she’s hearing that while Clinton is way ahead of the other Democratic candidates “in rolling out a campaign there,” she hasn’t yet invested enough in local women leaders. “I’m hearing she needs more boots on the ground, more social media—black women are very active on social media—and she needs to get beyond sound bites to have real conversations about policy. Women want to have a conversation.” Cobb-Hunter says she doesn’t see enough black women on the South Carolina Clinton team. “It’s mainly men, and I’ve told them that,” she remarks.
Clinton is also dealing with a crosscurrent in the black community that she probably can’t change or even much influence: a desire to focus on movement building, not elections. “I don’t see [Clinton] as a movement leader,” Barber says. “The question is: Does she tap into the movement enough? I’m real cautious about political leaders leading movements. I think we have to start state by state, building an indigenous pro-justice fusion coalition from the bottom up. It doesn’t have an election strategy, but a strategy for social change that will have an election impact.”
The Rev. Raphael Warnock is the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once served. Warnock also spoke at the “New South” event, and he agrees with Barber. But he adds that Clinton is navigating the unpredictable currents of movement politics reasonably well so far. Warnock was with her in Atlanta in late October, when Clinton laid out her criminal-justice reform platform and was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters. “I have to say, I thought she handled it very well,” Warnock notes. “As they have challenged her, she has gotten stronger and clearer on the issues. And I think that’s the point: Movements have to have an independent strategy in order to give our political friends the cover to do what’s necessary.”
“Cover—and courage,” Barber interjects. “Progressives missed Dr. King’s profound instruction in 1963: Go back to Mississippi. Go back to your states. Build your state up. Because your voting laws are going to be controlled by your state. Education policy? The state. We started investing in messiah candidates. And even when they win, we lose all the infrastructure. I don’t know that Bernie or Hillary or anybody can do what’s needed. But we better have a movement to the ballot box, because everything we’re concerned about has some connection to voting.”
In at least one way, it’s to Clinton’s advantage that she’s following Barack Obama, who was indeed considered a “messiah candidate.” While there remains an enormous amount of pride in our first black president, and a belief that history will ultimately judge him as a transformational leader, there is also a sense that the “movement” that his campaign seemed to represent withered on Election Day. Clinton is facing a different set of expectations. Although no one is looking for her to be their messiah or lead their movement, many are expecting her campaign to contribute to movement-building in a more enduring way. “One thing that’s encouraging to me about Hillary Clinton,” Cobb-Hunter says, “is that she’s talking about building a bench and building the party. I really appreciate that.”
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The pundit class likes to joke about the way that Mitt Romney supporters believed their man would win, right up to Election Day. Remember the movement to “unskew” the polls? And who among us hasn’t had a good laugh over Karl Rove’s insisting on camera that Fox News had wrongly called Ohio, and the presidency, for Obama? But the Romney folks weren’t merely delusional (though that played a role); there was something they just didn’t understand. Many pollsters, even some affiliated with Democrats, simply didn’t have models that were prepared for turnout among African-American women voters to increase in 2012 from 2008. For the first time in American history, despite new and old barriers to ballot access, black turnout was higher than white turnout, and turnout among black women was highest of all.
Is that level of support possible again in 2016 without a black candidate heading the ticket? Reid scoffs at the notion that it’s not. “Black voters are pragmatic. Symbolism has never worked.” She reminds me that Obama only won over the black vote once he won Iowa and showed he could get significant support from whites. “The Clinton campaign has to convince black women, first, she can win, and that she’s going to make a specific push on the policies they care about.”
The Clinton campaign knows it can’t take that for granted. Indeed, the alternative, Bakari Sellars points out, is depressing. “I mean, she’s going to win the South Carolina primary. She’s going to win the black vote overwhelmingly next November. But even if she gets 90 percent—90 percent of low turnout isn’t enough.”
But Glynda Carr sees a growing realization among black women that “we have the power to decide elections.” Clinton has “a real opportunity,” she says, “because black women are interested in being engaged in the political process like never before. They know they matter.” For that reason, she adds, “black women are the key” to a high turnout: “We know that when you fire up a black woman to vote, she’ll be firing up her family and firing up everybody.”