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

An attendee wears a Hillary Clinton campaign sticker at a rally in Columbia, S.C., last month. Young voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have helped fuel Bernie Sanders' candidacy, but as the race moves to South Carolina, a lot could change.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
An attendee wears a Hillary Clinton campaign sticker at a rally in Columbia, S.C., last month. Young voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have helped fuel Bernie Sanders' candidacy, but as the race moves to South Carolina, a lot could change.

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.

I don't know ... Maybe he's a fresh face. We've seen Hillary.

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.

Angela Bassett talks to students at South Carolina State University while campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton earlier this month.
Sean Rayford / Getty Images
Getty Images
Angela Bassett talks to students at South Carolina State University while campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton earlier this month.

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."

What makes her [Clinton] good for black people now?

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 allblack 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?

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Corrected: February 10, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
Quote marks that were around the word "firewall" have been removed because they could make it seem as if the word was used in the memo written by Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. The word has been used by critics and media, but Mook did not use that word.
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.