When the history of the 2016 presidential primary is written, if Hillary Clinton is the party’s nominee, it will show that Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign effectively ended in South Carolina, where Clinton trounced him by 49 percent, winning African Americans by an astonishing 86–14 margin. (She also won whites 54–46, a first for Clinton this primary season.)
Clinton won because she treated the state as a proxy for the African-American vote nationwide, which she will need desperately in this primary, and even more in November. South Carolina turned out to be a proxy for the black Democratic primary vote in 2008—and she lost it badly to Barack Obama in a bitterly fought contest. Her husband insulted the winner by comparing his victory to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s powerful but unsuccessful symbolic candidacy. Her campaign hemorrhaged African-American support after that, and Clinton never recovered.
What a difference eight years make. Black voters made up a higher percentage of South Carolina voters than they did in 2008 (61 percent to 55), and they gave Clinton a higher percentage of their votes than they did to Obama. She was introduced Saturday night by Congressman James Clyburn, who fell out with the Clintons over their perception that he favored Obama in ’08 (though he had stayed neutral in the race). This year Clyburn endorsed Clinton, just a week before the primary, and he wasn’t exaggerating as he declared, “We, tonight, have started Hillary Clinton on her way to the White House.” She hugged Clyburn for an extra few seconds when she joined him on stage Saturday night, as if to hold on to the moment after the stinging rebuke of 2008. If she wins, it began for real right here.
Clinton can only hope the rest of the race looks like South Carolina. (Of course, it doesn’t.) She won women 74–26. She even won white voters here, although the white vote was down from 2008. The rout bodes well for her performance in the more diverse Super Tuesday states, and, indeed, polls released Sunday showed her with at least 20-point leads in those states.
But Clinton didn’t just win South Carolina; Sanders lost it. He lost it when he interrupted Brookland Baptist churchgoers on February 21 during their after-service meal, looking like an awkward guest. (It would have been smarter to choose a different day; people here are serious about church, and their after-church eating and socializing.) And he lost it again when he chose not to really contest the state—even though, let’s be fair, he was already pretty likely to lose—and traveled mainly to majority-white Super Tuesday states this past week instead. Going forward, the Sanders team has drawn the map with an eye on Massachusetts, Vermont, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Minnesota on Tuesday, and little attention to the heavily black states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. He didn’t stay to deliver a concession speech, as Clinton did when she lost New Hampshire badly.