Barack Obama's Heir

By winning over the black voters who rejected her in 2008, Hillary Clinton may clinch the Democratic nomination—and inherit the coalition built by the president who defeated her.

Randall Hill / Reuters

SUMTER, S.C.—It has been a difficult season for Hillary Clinton.

The putative Democratic frontrunner, backed by all her party’s institutional might, has been set on her heels. She’s been told she is unlikable, untrustworthy, awkward, and corrupt; even her supporters often seem cool or skeptical to her. She’s been endangered by an avowed socialist who’s not even a Democrat; in the first three primary contests, she’s won two by narrow margins while being blown out in another, and she is tied in the race for regular delegates. The once-inevitable candidate appears hobbled and weakened, someone who, even assuming she still gets the nomination, will limp bruised and bloody to the general election, burdened by her inability to inspire.

But on Wednesday night, in a modest gymnasium on the campus of Morris College, a hundred-year-old black Baptist school, none of that mattered. Here, for once, she was beloved.

As Clinton, clad in a long, emerald-green coat, held a hand to her chest and vowed to “build on the progress made under President Obama and go further,” her sentences alternated with chants of “yeah” from the overwhelmingly African American crowd. They stood and cheered when she entered, waving “Women for Hillary” and “African Americans for Hillary” signs. They listened, and they heard her message, and they responded with uninhibited affirmation, something so many Democratic voters elsewhere had been so resistant to do.

Here in South Carolina, Clinton finally appears poised for a big win—one that could propel her all the way to the nomination—thanks to the very voting bloc that killed her candidacy eight years ago. Polls show her ahead in the state, where a majority of Democratic primary voters are African American, by margins of 20 points or more.

It is a remarkable turnabout for Clinton, who was coming off wins in New Hampshire and Nevada in 2008 when the black voters of South Carolina sharply turned their backs on her. Their rejection sealed her fate and added a bitter epilogue to the Clintons’ complicated lifelong relationship with the black community. Barack Obama won the state by 29 points, and the black voters of South Carolina put him on the path to the nomination.

In the final days before Saturday’s primary, Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, has seen the writing on the wall.  He’s spent most of the week elsewhere, but he can hardly be said to have ceded the state from the outset: Sanders outspent Clinton in television ads and has more than 200 paid staff in South Carolina. He has tried mightily to win here—it just hasn’t worked. As a result, this state, and the black vote, may prove as fatal to his candidacy as they did to Clinton’s in 2008.

The vote here also has far-reaching implications for the future of the Democratic Party, which increasingly relies on minority voters to win national elections. In the era of America’s first black president, black voters are the Democrats’ heart, soul, and bellwether, and Clinton’s general-election hopes will hinge on her ability to convince them she is Obama’s heir.

It was head-spinning to talk to the voters here, most of whom insisted they’d never disliked Clinton, only liked Obama better. The same arguments that fell on deaf ears eight years ago—that she was the more experienced, pragmatic, substantive, and electable candidate, and that her husband’s administration was a good time for America—were the ones they reached for now. “I like her agenda. I feel she’s fighting for us,” Eleanor Goss, a 70-year-old retired teacher, told me. “During Bill Clinton’s terms in office, things were very good for African Americans. And I feel she has the best chance to win.”

With Sanders elsewhere, Clinton whirled across South Carolina, making multiple stops in the state on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and deploying Bill and Chelsea Clinton to other corners of the state. The other theme that emerged, among the dozens of black voters I spoke to at Clinton’s events on Wednesday and Thursday, was a sense of familiarity: They’d heard of Sanders and heard his ads, but didn’t feel they knew him personally. “I support Hillary because she has a long track record of being in the struggle for economic and social justice,” said Ethel Wells, an 81-year-old retired social-services worker.

These voters didn’t necessarily want a revolution. Most described themselves as moderate, and many were socially conservative. Several voters in the rural hamlet of Kingstree told me they disagreed with Obama, as well as Sanders and Clinton, on gay rights because of their religious beliefs, and many blamed lax parenting and cultural decline for what they saw as the younger generation’s misbehavior and violence. Sanders’s pitch for radical change and progressive purity didn’t resonate with them. “I believe in the word of God. Marriage is between one man and one woman,” Rosa Hazel, a 60-year-old saleswoman, told me. Her sister, a retired nurse named Martha Cobb, chimed in, “Revolution, that’s a bunch of crap. There’s no way one president can do that. It’s impossible.”

At a time when the majority of white Americans believe America is declining, African Americans have a different view. And indeed, while whites’ relative standing in society may be declining, minorities’ material circumstances are improving. Many of the people I spoke to could remember a time when segregation was the law of the land and opportunities for advancement were much more limited. “Growing up we were farmers—sharecroppers, actually,” Ruth McKinney, a retired teacher born and raised in Sumter County, told me. “My parents inspired us all to get a college education.”

There was a pervasive sense that any bad blood with the Clintons was firmly in the past, and that voters saw Hillary Clinton as someone who understood their struggles. “This whole month, in our church, we’ve been preaching forgiveness,” Ruth McKinney’s husband, Jim, a retired insurance agent, told me. “If President Obama and Bill Clinton could mend fences, anybody can. Am I going to stay mad at you all my life because we have a rift? No, of course not!”

It was a windy, rainy night in Sumter, a crime- and poverty-stricken burg that is the hometown of Representative Jim Clyburn, who had endorsed Clinton earlier in the week. Shortly after Clinton spoke, much of the town’s power would go out, plunging the campus into pitch-darkness. Testifying to the new conventional wisdom that the Democratic race is more or less over, the press riser for Clinton’s speech was half-empty, her potential comeback greeted with a yawn by a media that never really expected anything else.

“Everybody gets knocked down,” Clinton said, telling the story of her own failed attempt at health-care reform, which she positioned as the predecessor to the Affordable Care Act. “The question is, are you going to get back up?”

The crowd responded: “Yeah!

Twenty-odd years ago, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson had an argument about the future of the Democratic Party. The party had been sent to the wilderness by the Reagan Revolution, and had lost five of the previous six presidential elections.

Jackson’s faction—the traditional Democratic base of interest groups, labor unions, and liberals—argued that all Democrats needed to do to win again nationally was increase turnout among minorities and the poor. The party’s far-left policy stances, they believed—things like welfare rights and handgun bans—didn’t have to change.

But Clinton’s faction, backed by the Democratic Leadership Council, had a different view. The base, they said, was in denial. Even with disproportionately high turnout among nonwhite and lower-income voters, Democrats would not have won the 1988 election, they pointed out. The party needed to moderate its positions to improve its standing with culturally conservative working-class white voters—the “Reagan Democrats”—and with moderates.

The fight was an ugly one. Unions picketed the DLC, and Jackson branded it “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” Clinton won the 1992 election in part by using the black radicalism of the rapper Sister Souljah as a foil to convince white voters he was on their side. (Jackson criticized Clinton for his condemnation of Souljah, but Clinton’s denunciation subsequently became shorthand for a politician standing up to his party’s extreme fringe.) Clinton successfully executed the DLC’s electoral strategy, bringing enough whites and moderates into the Democratic fold to win.

While in office, Bill Clinton pursued policies such as the 1994 crime bill, whose punitive provisions set the stage for today’s incarceration crisis, and welfare reform, which slashed the safety net on which many poor blacks relied. Yet he also enjoyed a special bond with the black community, which consistently held him in high regard and sympathized with his poor Southern background. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, Clinton was dubbed “our first black president” not as a compliment, but because Toni Morrison believed he was similarly oppressed by the power structure.

The 2008 primaries dredged up much of this tortured history. It has occasionally come up this year, too, as when, on Wednesday in Charleston, Hillary Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matter protestors demanding she apologize for mass incarceration and for having called young black males “superpredators” in a 1996 speech. But the 2008 general election proved something else: that Jackson had finally won the argument about the Democratic Party.

Obama won by mobilizing a coalition of white liberals, minorities, and young voters. By energizing these constituencies and increasing their turnout, he no longer needed Bill Clinton’s appeals to gun-toting Appalachians or status-quo-oriented centrists. The point was underscored in 2012, when Mitt Romney won a greater share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan had in 1980—and still lost by 5 million votes, as Ron Brownstein has noted. Every four years, the electorate gets about 2 percentage points less white. The Democratic Party wins presidential elections—and loses nonpresidential ones—because it has become the party of what Brownstein has dubbed the “coalition of the ascendant.” (Republicans, too, realize their future is endangered unless they can appeal to more of these voters. And with the rise of Donald Trump, some fear that the party has instead been galvanized by white backlash to Obama’s coalition.)

“The emerging Democratic coalition is African Americans, Hispanic and Asian voters, and progressive white voters,” David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s electoral victories, told me. “That’s the core of the Democratic Party.”

Barack Obama has left the Democratic Party in a different state than he found it, one far more dependent on the loyalty of minority voters, particularly the African American voters who have been so inspired by his election and reelection. The question that looms for the party’s future, however, is whether any candidate besides Obama can pull off this trick.

“Obama had a unique appeal to these voters because of the historic nature of his candidacy,” Axelrod said. Clinton, he noted, has smartly positioned herself as Obama’s biggest cheerleader and the inheritor of his legacy. The ironic result is that the map of the 2008 Democratic primaries, in which Obama won minority-heavy states while Clinton appealed to the Rust Belt, has been nearly reversed in 2016. (A recent poll had Sanders leading Clinton by 30 points in West Virginia, a state where, in 2008, Clinton defeated Obama by nearly 50 points.)

The interesting thing about this year’s 2016 Democratic primary is that it has taken the modern Democratic coalition—a sometimes-uneasy alliance of white liberals and minorities, with most of Bill Clinton’s bubbas and moderates out the door—and split it down the middle. Sanders appeals to the white liberals, and has struggled throughout the campaign to make his case to minority voters; the way he has run aground in South Carolina shows how that effort has fallen short. Clinton has hung on to the loyalty of the minority vote even as her party’s white liberals gravitate to Sanders’s revolutionary socialism.

Axelrod has vivid, bitter memories of South Carolina eight years ago, which he recalls as “quite vituperative.” On the eve of the primary, Bill Clinton called Obama’s candidacy a “fairy tale” and attempted to downplay the contest by noting that Jackson had won the state twice, comments that inflamed the Obama campaign. This time around, “People talk about the African American community as Hillary’s firewall, but it’s really Barack Obama that is her firewall,” Axelrod said. “How ironic it is, as we contemplate the impending South Carolina primary, that that should be the case.”

At a dark-windowed, blank-fronted event space in Orangeburg on Thursday, I was waiting for Killer Mike. The Atlanta rapper and activist was scheduled to appear at a Sanders phone bank here, the only scheduled event by any Sanders surrogate in the state all day. Two days before the South Carolina primary, on a day when Hillary Clinton had made appearances in four South Carolina cities and Bill Clinton in three, this was the only public showing of the Sanders campaign.

And Killer Mike was late. At 4:30, when the event was supposed to start, perhaps a dozen people milled around in a venue that could have held hundreds. A pile of T-shirts advertising Sanders’s tour of historically black colleges and universities sat untouched on a counter. Several of the attendees were volunteers from the Northeast who’d come down after New Hampshire.

I met a recent Brown graduate named Will Lockhart who described his South Carolina living quarters, in Camden, as “a little Bernie commune” and said he “had serious FOMO” after his friends volunteered for Sanders in New Hampshire and he did not. I met a young woman who was taking video testimonials for the Millennials for Bernie Instagram account. I met a life coach and hypnotherapist named Summer Rose, a curly-haired 41-year-old blonde who’d traveled from California to Iowa to South Carolina in a van rigged up with lights—“hashtag-Bernie-lightship!”—and whose activist resume also included Occupy Wall Street, the peace movement, and the anti-Monsanto crusade.

The crowd, such as it was, wasn’t totally white, but most of the African Americans in attendance were either formally affiliated with the Sanders campaign or members of the marching band at South Carolina State, one of two black colleges in town. The marching-band members had been invited by a friend on the Sanders campaign, and most of them were out-of-state students who couldn’t vote on Saturday. In 1968, three black men were shot and killed by police on the South Carolina State campus after they protested segregation at a local bowling alley. Today, the university’s gym is named for the victims.

Sanders’s inability to gain traction in South Carolina has come as a surprise to his campaign, which expected his New Hampshire win to create a burst of momentum that would spread southward. The pervasive pundit chatter about a South Carolina “firewall” for Clinton would, they believed, prove to be so much empty Beltway nonsense; Clinton’s support among blacks, they thought, would prove as soft this time around as it had eight years ago, when she initially led in South Carolina polls before voters got better acquainted with Obama.

The Sanders campaign has plowed resources into the state and sought to call attention to his youthful anti-segregation activism. It has aired a powerful television ad featuring Erica Garner, whose father was killed by police in New York. (Garner’s mother, and the mothers of other police-violence victims, have campaigned for Clinton.) In another ad airing on South Carolina radio stations, director Spike Lee says of Sanders, “When he gets into the White House, he will do the right thing.” The campaign hoped that a fracture between older and younger black voters would materialize, similar to the gap that emerged between older and younger women in New Hampshire, with the younger generation sympathizing more with the radical activism of the Black Lives Matter movement than with their parents’ incremental view of progress.

But unlike voters in other states, who have proved lukewarm on Clinton and receptive to Sanders’s pitch, the black voters of South Carolina have not budged. The latest polls actually have Clinton’s lead widening in the state. Around 7 p.m., with Killer Mike still nowhere to be found (his flight into Greenville was delayed), I sat down with Sanders’s press secretary, Symone Sanders, who openly admitted that the campaign did not expect to win South Carolina, only to “close the gap.”

Sanders, in fact, sounded close to admitting that the overall campaign was more about making a point than getting the nomination. “No one expected nine months ago that Bernie Sanders would be a real candidate,” she said. “He was supposed to be a fringe candidate. And we have proved people wrong, no matter what the end result is.” She rejected the premise that a loss in South Carolina would prove that Bernie Sanders couldn’t appeal to African Americans. “South Carolina is just one state,” she said. “There are black people all over this country, and Bernie is engaging with African American voters in all the Super Tuesday states.”

South Carolina has been roiled anew by racial conflict in the past year. In April 2015, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a North Charleston police officer while fleeing a traffic stop in broad daylight. Two months later, nine blacks were gunned down in a Charleston church during a Bible study. In the uproar that followed the massacre, the Republican-controlled state legislature finally voted to take down the Confederate battle flag that still flew in front of the statehouse.

Even to African Americans who believe their opportunities are better than those of their parents, there is a sense that the country’s racial wounds are fresh and raw. “We are trying to move past the issues that divide us, because we have seen so much tragedy,” Justin Bamberg, a state representative and attorney who represented Walter Scott’s family, told me. Bamberg, who is 28 and in his first legislative term, switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders. He added, “South Carolina has always been a state that resisted change.”

Killer Mike, a big, bushy-bearded man in a blue hooded Polo sweatshirt, finally arrived around 8 p.m., when a few volunteers had already begun to haphazardly make campaign calls on their own phones off printed sheets. Apologizing for his lateness, he said that when he’d made pit stops on the two-hour drive from Greenville, he’d repeatedly been approached by “young black families” who told him they were voting for Sanders. “We’re fighting the good fight!” he said. “Let’s close this gap! Let’s let them know they’re in a fight!”

As the D.J. started up again, I chatted with Killer Mike in a corner. He expressed frustration at the way the national media seemed to be declaring the race over. I asked what it would mean for Sanders’s candidacy if he couldn’t win such a central bloc of the Democratic Party as the African American vote.

“It means that African American voters were not truly informed, that’s all,” he said. “If black people are given the opportunity to know Senator Sanders’s policies, there’s no way they’ll vote for anyone else. It’s that simple.”

Killer Mike, who is 40, said a new, radical activism was necessary to improve African Americans’ lives. “The only thing that progresses America an inch is radicalism,” he said. “If not for the kids in the ‘60s being radical, we wouldn’t be standing right here enjoying the rights that we enjoy. If the kids today weren’t radically protesting with Black Lives Matter and Occupy, you would not see more American in tune with what finance is doing to rape us and pay off our politicians. I appreciate young, radical minds, because they progress our society forward.”

In 2008, Killer Mike supported Obama, but now he said he would wait to render judgment on Obama’s presidency until it was over. “I think things are getting far worse for black people,” he said, pointing to the Scott shooting as the sort of thing that didn’t happen when he was a teenager, even if street violence was then more widespread.

To Killer Mike, the idea that things were getting better for black people was a pernicious notion designed to shame them into complacency. “When people say, ‘It’s okay, why are you still complaining?,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘My heart has no empathy for you,’” he said.

It was a potent cry for change in a time of crisis. The sky outside had grown dark, the air chilly, and the lights were going out on the run-down main street. But when I looked around the room, it was mostly empty.