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Hillary Clinton Looks For Redemption In South Carolina

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, speak at a "Get Out The Vote Rally" in Columbia, S.C., on Friday.
Gerald Herbert
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, speak at a "Get Out The Vote Rally" in Columbia, S.C., on Friday.

Eight years ago, South Carolina was where the wheels started to come off Hillary Clinton's campaign. But tonight, it could be where redemption begins.

The former secretary of state is heavily favored over rival Bernie Sanders in the Palmetto State, in part due to her advantage with the state's sizable African-American population.

That wasn't true in 2008 though. Barack Obama had notched a win in Iowa, but Clinton had bounced back with a narrow New Hampshire victory. When the race moved to South Carolina, her campaign hoped her husband's goodwill with the black community would be a silver bullet.

Instead, the then-Illinois senator's victory in overwhelmingly white Iowa had black voters who were initially skeptical that an African-American candidate couldn't win a general election now convinced the historic nature of his candidacy was for real.

"When he pulled off that upset in Iowa, I think that's where a lot of African Americans in South Carolina started going, 'Oh, wait a minute. He could do this,'" said Danielle Vinson, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville.

The en masse movement touched a nerve with former President Bill Clinton. Blasting Obama's opposition to the Iraq war — a frequent hit against the then-New York senator — he complained, "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I've ever seen."

The black community in the state and elsewhere was outraged. Bill Clinton tried to do damage control, going on black radio and apologizing, but, as the New York Timeswrote back then, "It feels like the tightly spun machine has come a bit unwound."

Unwound it was. Obama trounced Clinton, 55 percent to 27 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who was born in the state, got 18 percent of the vote. Fifty-five percent of the electorate was African-American, and Obama won those voters by a stunning 59 percent. She also narrowly lost white voters to Edwards too.

But those fences in the state appear to have been mended. Clinton went on to serve in his administration as secretary of state, and she frequently invokes the president on the campaign. Now eight years later, recent polls show Clinton with anywhere from a 23- to 50-point lead in South Carolina. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll last week gave Clinton a 47-point advantage with black voters, while Sanders had a narrower five point edge with white voters.

A South Carolina victory would be more than just a moral or redemptive victory for Clinton though. After a Nevada win last weekend, she began to shift the narrative and the momentum away from the virtual draw in Iowa and Sanders's crushing win in New Hampshire. Now, as the race moves into Super Tuesday and runs through many southern states that also have sizable black voting blocs, she has the advantage over Sanders, and a win on Saturday would only bolster that argument.

"I think that winning in South Carolina is a big deal for her just because of what happened in 2008, but I also think that for Bernie, not doing well here, letting her win by 20 or 30 points, just proves his roadblock, which is diverse voting populations," said Amanda Loveday, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a onetime spokesman for Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C.

Clinton has been helped in South Carolina by endorsements from Clyburn, who remained neutral in 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and other African-American leaders in the state. Sanders has been campaigning with former NAACP President Ben Jealous and rapper Killer Mike, and he has made inroads with some younger black voters, a generational split that's been evidenced between the two candidates regardless of ethnicity so far.

Now though, voters who may have felt a tug between Obama and Clinton have returned to her camp, embracing again the former first lady and her husband they once called "the first black president."

"I think it's less about what [Sanders] is missing and more about her extensive relationship with the community already," said Loveday. "People who wanted to support her in the beginning of 2008 and then changed their support to Obama, I think they're saying, 'I'm going to go back to her now.'"

Even Sanders's team seems to have seen the writing on the wall. When he spoke last Saturday after losing in Nevada, he said the campaign would move on to Super Tuesday — not mentioning South Carolina, something Loveday said "disappointed" and "frustrated some folks" in the state.

And while he has campaigned in the Palmetto State this week, he will instead be in Minnesota Saturday night when returns roll in. Sanders campaign pollster even admitted to the Columbia State newspaper that the margin is "not going to be that close." Still, it's not because he didn't make an effort in South Carolina.

"Sanders has been in the state and he's been advertising heavily on black radio for more than a month. If he can't make inroads here, I don't see him suddenly picking up steam on Super Tuesday among minority voters," said Vinson. "If Clinton does indeed pull down large margins among African-Americans in particular I think it gives her some momentum and some breathing room going forward and sort of beings the end for Sanders. He'll have to do something to change up quickly."

But a Clinton victory doesn't mean that all of her problems as a candidate would magically disappear, either. Loveday, who wanted Vice President Joe Biden to get in the race but is now neutral in the contest, said there just isn't the same enthusiasm for Clinton in the state that there was for Obama.

"I think she will win by a very large margin, but some of the voters that I've talked to that voted for her already or plan to, the excitement to vote for her is not the excitement that I saw in 2008 for Barack Obama."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.