In South Carolina, Young Black Voters Could Put Holes In Clinton's Firewall

Feb 11, 2016
Originally published on February 28, 2016 10:28 pm

After a razor-thin victory in the Iowa caucuses, and a double-digit loss to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton is looking to South Carolina for a big win later this month. And she's counting on strong black support in that state to give her a definitive victory.

Most polls suggest she'll get that support; by some estimates, she could garner 80 percent of South Carolina's black vote in the Feb. 27 primary. Previously, even Bernie Sanders himself admitted as much.

But there may be a hitch. Increasingly, young, black college-aged voters are turning lukewarm on Clinton.

At a gathering of University of South Carolina College Democrats this week, a group watching the results come in from New Hampshire was split fairly evenly between Sanders and Clinton supporters. Only one USC student didn't raise his hand for either candidate — Michael Cauthen, a junior studying political science. He told NPR he was undecided.

But upon further reflection, that changed. "I feel like both of the candidates have pretty similar past platforms," Cauthen said. "I think when Bernie Sanders entered the race, he definitely pulled Hillary to the left ... which I think is a good thing." And then, he said, "ultimately I'm leaning Hillary. I do like Bernie and I think his policies are interesting. I don't know whether they're pragmatic." Cauthen, who is black, told NPR he'd vote for Clinton in the South Carolina primary and in the general election, should she be her party's nominee.

But, Cauthen was slow, if not afraid, to admit it. He said he still has reservations about some of Clinton's past positions, like her shift on a 2002 bankruptcy bill.

Earlier this week at Claflin University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, student Jessica Tolbert wavered in her support of Clinton as well, just before attending a pro-Clinton rally on campus. "I'm probably gonna vote for Hillary," Tolbert said at first. But the more she talked, the more she wavered. "Consistency is key for me," Tolbert said. "And I think on certain things, I hear her say one thing and then I hear her say something else." Eventually, when asked how she'd vote if the election were held right then, she said, "If I could vote today, maybe it would go to Bernie."

Tolbert, whose top issue this election is health care, said that Sanders just feels more consistent, though she couldn't exactly put her finger on why. It could be in part because he's newer to her, she said. "I don't know. ... Maybe he's a fresh face. We've seen Hillary."

And that's the thing — young black voters in South Carolina who spoke with NPR say when they look into Clinton's record, they don't like all they've seen.

At another Clinton rally featuring campaign surrogate Angela Bassett, this time at South Carolina State University, student Taylor Honore had some tough questions on Clinton's record. "I did my background research on what Hillary has really done for the black community," Honore told NPR, "and it kind of concerned me."

After students got through initial questions for Bassett (star of films like Waiting to Exhale and the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do with It) about acting and what it's like to star in American Horror Story alongside Lady Gaga, the actress took a tough question from Honore: "What makes her [Clinton] good for black people now?"

Honore pressed Bassett on Bill Clinton's so-called "crime bill," the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which experts claim greatly increased the number of blacks in prisons throughout the country. (Bernie Sanders voted for that bill, too.)

Just after that, another student asked about Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform measures and the harm they caused to black families, asking Bassett, "As a black woman with two sons, why do you advocate on Ms. Clinton's behalf?"

Bassett said Clinton does care about black families, pointing to her work with the Children's Defense Fund and the Children's Health Insurance Program. The actress also said Clinton is ready to have conversations about incarceration and the role of the government pertaining to black families.

But there was a theme to the students' questions: A lot of these young black students' ambivalence toward Hillary Clinton was a reaction not just to her, but also to her husband's policies.

And the questions seemed to contradict the belief in Clinton's campaign that black and Latino voters will help her win the Democratic nomination. Critics are saying Clinton is unfairly counting on those votes to serve as a firewall of sorts — after seeing a plan that was spelled out in a memo from campaign manager Robby Mook earlier this week.

Clinton's campaign seems to be aware of increasing criticism from some young black voters. On Wednesday, her staff organized a conference call featuring black state legislators and NAACP members, to "Discuss Clinton's and Sanders' Records on Behalf of the African American Community." In the call, those surrogates said Sanders has been absent on issues affecting black America.

With all the scrambling for black votes ahead of South Carolina's primary, it's important to keep in mind that young black voters in South Carolina aren't all black voters in South Carolina. Jaime Harrison, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, says they may not even be the majority. "In 2008, 56 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary was African-Americans — more than half," he said. Of that demographic, Harrison says, black women were the most powerful, but not young black women. "It's sort of our mothers' ages ... I would say ... 35 to 60 — that age is the sweet spot. So, Bernie Sanders has to figure out how do you communicate and talk to those folks."

And right now, Harrison says, with those older black voters — men and women — they're still leaning toward Clinton. The mood on college campuses, he said, "is very different from what I see in the churches and the barbershops with older African-Americans."

It is not yet clear whether Sanders can change those older black voters' minds. But one candidate, eight years ago, did just that. "What he [Sanders] could do ... and this is something that Barack Obama was very effective in doing, was mobilizing his young people to convince their parents — and to convince their grandparents — to support him."

And that may be the big question in South Carolina's Democratic primary later this month, and perhaps throughout the rest of the country as well: How well can 2016 Bernie Sanders channel 2008 Barack Obama?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn now to the presidential campaign and South Carolina, where a lot could change for Bernie Sanders, who drew big support from young voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey, y'all.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hi, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Where do you want to sit?

SANDERS: That's me at a primary watch party with the University of South Carolina College Democrats. Quick snap poll, who's for Hillary? Who's for Bernie? Who's for... Even after Bernie Sanders' clear victory in New Hampshire, there was a fairly even split there between Sanders and Clinton supporters. But then there was Matthew Cauthen. And so you are currently undecided?

MATTHEW CAUTHEN: Yes.

SANDERS: Why? Cauthen, who is black, told me at first that he hadn't made up his mind. But then, he told me this.

CAUTHEN: I know who I'll vote for on the election night, probably.

SANDERS: Who you'll vote for in the primary?

CAUTHEN: Yeah.

SANDERS: Cauthen said he likes Clinton and her policies. He thinks she can get things done. He's even volunteered for Clinton. But he thinks on some key issues, she's had more than one position.

CAUTHEN: And I think she would be a good president. I have some reservations about some of the things she's done in the past. But ultimately, I think she'll be a good president.

SANDERS: If you think you heard some ambivalence there, you did. And he wasn't the only one.

JESSICA TOLBERT: I'm probably going to vote for Hillary.

SANDERS: I met Jessica Tolbert at a Clinton rally at Claflin University, a historically black college. And the more we talked, the more she wavered.

TOLBERT: Consistency is key for me, and I think on certain issues I hear her say one thing, and then I remember her saying something else.

SANDERS: She couldn't really go into specifics, but before we were done, Tolbert said this.

TOLBERT: If I could vote today, maybe it would go to Bernie. I don't know. Maybe he's a fresh face. We've seen Hillary.

SANDERS: Another young black voter with doubts about Hillary Clinton when Clinton consistently leads in polls with black voters. What's that about?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: So, are you guys excited for our guest speaker, Academy and Emmy-award nominated actress and film director, Miss Angela Bassett?

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Miss Angela Bassett was at South Carolina State, another black college, to campaign for Hillary Clinton. But in the Q and A, she got several tough questions.

TAYLOR HONORE: I did my background research on what Hillary has really done for the black community, and it kind of concerned me.

SANDERS: That Taylor Honore. She's a student at S.C. State.

HONORE: There're tough-on-crime politics that were enforced when Bill Clinton was in office.

SANDERS: She asked Bassett about Clinton's 1994 crime bill. She says it sent a lot of black men to prison. Just after that, another student asked about Bill Clinton's welfare reform and the harm that it caused to black families. There was a theme here. A lot of their ambivalence towards Hillary Clinton was a reaction to her husband's policies. But do these students represent all black voters in South Carolina?

JAIME HARRISON: It's very different from what I see, you know, in the churches and in barber shops with the older generations of African-Americans.

SANDERS: Jaime Harrison is state chair of the state Democratic party. He says Clinton still has strong support with black voters overall in the state, especially older black voters, and it might be hard to change their minds. But Harrison says there may be a way.

HARRISON: Now, what he could do - and this is something that Barack Obama was very effective in doing - was mobilizing his young people to convince their parents and to convince their grandparents to support him.

SANDERS: And maybe that's the big question in South Carolina and around the country - how well can Bernie Sanders channel Barack Obama? Sam Sanders, NPR News, Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.