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Clinton and Sanders battle for black votes in South Carolina

February 26, 2016 at 8:04 PM EDT
With the South Carolina primary approaching, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are preparing for their first battle in a diverse electorate; black voters cast 55 percent of all ballots in the state’s 2012 primary. Clinton has a clear lead among that group, but Sanders’ supporters hope his message can win him enough converts to make a difference. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to South Carolina.

Donald Trump scored a commanding win there last weekend on the Republican side. Tomorrow, Democrats head to the polls.

I just got back from the Palmetto State, where victory hinges on a key group of voters.

For Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, South Carolina represents not only the largest electorate they have faced so far this year, but the first big test of popularity among a crucial Democratic voting bloc.

MAN: We have got somebody that definitely will stand with us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: African-Americans, in the last election, they accounted for 55 percent of the primary vote here. It’s no coincidence both candidates have been targeting their messages almost exclusively at that audience.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Democratic Presidential Candidate: Something’s wrong when African-Americans are three times as likely to be denied a mortgage as white people are.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), Democratic Presidential Candidate: When African-American youth unemployment is 51 percent, you know what? We’re going to create jobs and educational opportunities for our kids, not more jails.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton has a long connection with this state, dating back when she was a young law student, working on juvenile justice issues, and continuing through her husband’s presidency.

The mayor of the capital city, Columbia, Stephen Benjamin..

CHILDREN: We present to you the 45th president of the United States.


JUDY WOODRUFF: … says many African-Americans think of the Clintons as champions of the disenfranchised.

MAYOR STEPHEN BENJAMIN, Columbia: Fighting for criminal justice reform, fighting for education, fighting for health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That affection has given Clinton a solid base in this state, particularly among older African-American women, the voting bloc that turned out at the highest rate of any group in 2012, and which is expected to do so again this year.

It’s one of the reasons why women were prominently featured at nearly every Clinton event in South Carolina this week.

State Representative Chandra Dillard was in the audience when Clinton spoke to her black sorority group.

CHANDRA DILLARD (D), State Representative: I see her as someone being able to bring people together, which will enhance policy-making, hopefully, with our Congress, because Secretary Clinton has been in that position to bring parties together to work on issues. She’s done it. She can do it again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dillard’s colleague, state Representative Justin Bamberg, acknowledges Clinton has a built-in advantage, but he hopes that when people listen to Sanders’ message, they will do as he did and switch their support.

JUSTIN BAMBERG (D), State Representative: The younger folks aren’t thinking about history as much. They’re thinking forward. They’re looking at the fact that, man, I’m in my early 20s, and when I graduate college, I’m going to owe more in student loan debt than I would if I had not gone to college and just went and bought a house.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bamberg says Sanders’ promise of free college tuition and a plan to narrow the income inequality gap has helped him gain some traction in the state, as has his tough stance on Wall Street donors.

JUSTIN BAMBERG: I don’t think he will waver to the special interest or those large groups with the most money that oftentimes can cause decisions to be made that aren’t in the people’s best interest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sanders supporter Gloria Bromell Tinubu is even more pointed in her criticism of the Clintons’ relationship with big money.

GLORIA BROMELL TINUBU, Bernie Sanders Supporter: It’s clear that they were are the leaders and are the leaders of what is called the new Democrats, which is pro-big business, pro-big money, pro-war, right, anti-welfare, anti-government that will support poor people, but always for a government that will support rich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: University of South Carolina political scientist Todd Shaw says, while Sanders still lags in the polls here — most show him more than 20 points behind Clinton — his predominantly young followers seem to be more enthusiastic.

TODD SHAW, University of South Carolina: Sanders supporters say that he has the vision thing down. He’s visionary. Yes, these are bold and idealistic questions, but they should be questions that we’re raising. And he may be — he’s certainly appealing to a pent-up frustration about what hasn’t occurred.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shaw says Clinton has been wise to tie herself closely to President Obama, who’s enormously popular among black Democrats here.

TODD SHAW: It’s a pretty smart move, because, of course, she can make that claim, having been the secretary — his former secretary of state, that she can say, well, he — and she does say, in effect, it was Hillarycare before it was Obamacare, but I give him credit that he carried it out. And now here’s where I’m going to now carry this football forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-year-old Jada Williams says that’s why she’s volunteering for Clinton, and not Sanders.

JADA WILLIAMS, Hillary Clinton Supporter: I think that we don’t need a big revolution. I don’t think we need to make America great again. I feel like we’re doing well. And Hillary is the person who is going to make us continue to do well and put us towards what people feel like is the American dream.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other factor at play here and in next week’s Super Tuesday contests is a focus on racial injustice.

It’s an issue keenly felt in a state where a white gunman killed nine black people worshiping in church, as well as several highly publicized cases of alleged police misconduct.

This past week, Clinton campaigned alongside the mothers of victims of violence, including Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin.

SYBRINA FULTON, Mother of Trayvon Martin: And we have an opportunity to have someone that’s going to stand up for us as African-Americans, for us as women. I say my vote goes to Hillary Clinton.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And in a TV ad narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, Clinton tackles the issue head on.

MORGAN FREEMAN, Actor: She says their names. Trayvon Martin.

HILLARY CLINTON: Shot to death.

MORGAN FREEMAN: Dontre Hamilton.



HILLARY CLINTON: Sandra Bland did nothing wrong.

MORGAN FREEMAN: And makes their mothers’ fight for justice her own.

JADA WILLIAMS: She’s saying: I want to help the African-Americans here in this community. I want everyone to come together because we do have a problem here and it needs to be addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sanders tackles racial injustice in part by linking it to his central rallying cry of economic inequality.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: There is nothing we cannot accomplish.

Vouching for him, movie director Spike Lee.

SPIKE LEE, Director: Ninety-nine percent of Americans were hurt by the great recession of 2008 and many are still recovering, and that’s why I am officially endorsing my brother Bernie Sanders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Sanders also stresses his lifelong activism for civil rights, going back to the 1960s.

NARRATOR: He was there when Dr. King marched on Washington, unafraid to challenge the status quo to end racial profiling, take on police misconduct, and take down a system that profits from mass imprisonment.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: There is no president who will fight harder to end institutional racism.


GLORIA BROMELL TINUBU: He’s consistently fought for rights for all people, equality and justice. And it’s not just a passing thing with him. It’s something that he’s being doing for close to 50 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sanders’ camp acknowledges she’s ahead. Their goal is to hold down the size of her margin here, as they to try to pick off some of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states.

But with African-Americans making up a powerful portion of many states coming up, Clinton’s advantage with blacks in South Carolina amounts to a serious and enduring challenge for him.