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It was a victory eight years in the making.
The South Carolina Democratic primary election gave Hillary Clinton a dramatic and decisive victory over rival Bernie Sanders in the race for the presidential nomination. And it was African Americans who led the way contributing to such an astonishing victory.
In the biggest blowout of the campaign so far, Clinton beat Sanders 76 percent to 24 percent. It was nearly the reverse of the outcome in the state in 2008 when Clinton received only 27 percent of the vote with the overwhelming majority of African American support going to Barack Obama. The win for the then Illinois senator validated his candidacy as the real deal and proved he could expand his reach beyond white Northern liberals.
In an electoral sense, South Carolina was the beginning of the Obama Coalition.
Political watchers are now familiar with the term as the cohort of voters who supported the president in 2008 and 2012, and included African Americans, Hispanics, single white women, Millennials, and first time voters. This group, along with crossover support from Republicans and independents, delivered for Obama in ’08. The rhythm and mood of this election tells us that, if Clinton is the nominee, she will need to build a similar coalition of voters in 2016 in order to keep the Oval Office in Democratic hands.
While overall turnout was down from 2008 (more on that later), African American turnout was up. Exit polls tell us that 61 percent of the electorate was black, and Clinton captured 86 percent of that vote. That’s a higher percentage than Obama in 2008 (78 percent). Also, this level of support among African Americans didn’t just happen. There are a few factors that contributed to these extraordinary results.
A Real Focus on the Black Vote
For decades, campaigns ignored messaging and mobilizing black voters until much later in the race because of a focus on swing voters – those soccer moms or Reagan Democrats they were hoping to bring back in the fold. Minority voters, and especially African Americans, were seen as the base of the party - a vote Democrats could always count on, or said another way, take for granted.
Oh how times have changed. Because of today’s seemingly immovable ideological lines, the notion of a swing voter has nearly evaporated. Now each party is focused more intensely on messaging and mobilizing to the broadest set of voters with a natural affinity for their positions. Now efforts to persuade voters are not about getting them to change their minds, but simply getting supporters to the polls on Election Day. Based on strong targeting models, the Clinton team identified their most likely supporters and delivered them on primary day. In this case, the focus was on African Americans.
Payback… In a Good Way
It’s well documented at this point that the Clintons in 2008 had no idea how to run a 21st century campaign. They were still using the old base vote models mentioned before, and relying on their long-standing relationship with African American leaders and voters across the nation, they thought the “base” was solid. They never thought that loyalty could potentially be lost.
This year, Clinton’s team very clearly did not assume she had the black vote locked up, even running against a 74-year-old white Jewish senator from Vermont. However, the black community may have felt an inherent desire to pay back the Clintons for not sticking with them eight years ago.
See the full-throated endorsement of Congressman John Lewis, who openly questioned Sanders’s Civil Rights bonafides. In 2008, Lewis surprisingly switched his support to Obama after pledging for Clinton. Also, Congressman Jim Clyburn, who also endorsed Obama in ’08 and felt Bill Clinton’s wrath in a late night phone call, waited late in this cycle to publicly support Clinton giving his endorsement full dramatic impact.
With leaders such as Lewis, Clyburn and the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus in line, African Americans got the message – we’re sticking with Hillary this time.
Knitting a Quilt One Patch at a Time
Should Clinton become her party’s nominee, she has already started working on her fall campaign by garnering the black vote in such huge numbers. That will need to continue and expand to other groups, especially Millennials and first time voters during primary season (Clinton lost voters age 17-29 to Sanders in South Carolina continuing an unfortunate trend).
Also, right now Republicans are claiming record turnouts for their primary elections, while Democrats are underperforming considerably from the last open seat presidential campaign in 2008. It’s too early to call it an enthusiasm gap just yet, but it places even more emphasis on increasing voter participation across a broader diversity of voters during the primaries and not ending this thing just yet.
Clinton has successfully and dramatically locked in one patch of the quilt she needs to re-ignite the Obama coalition. We’ll see if the trend continues with new patches added through Super Tuesday and beyond.
Corey Ealons is a senior vice president with VOX Global, a Washington, DC based communications firm, and a former White House spokesperson for President Barack Obama. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyEalons.