Clinton, Obama prove Dems’ reliance on nonwhite voters

Bill Barrow
Associated Press

Atlanta — Eight years ago, exit polls showed Hillary Clinton with comfortable margins over now-President Barack Obama among whites and Latinos during the Democratic primary season.

This year, exit polls of Democratic voters showed whites narrowly preferred Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet, Clinton is the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee.

The key difference: African-Americans sided overwhelmingly with the winner of 2008 and 2016 nominations, with black voters across the South and in heavily Democratic cities fueling key wins and delegate advantages in the drawn-out primary contests.

For Clinton, her second effort is evidence of a lesson learned, and it provides her with a head start in rebuilding part of the general election coalition that propelled Obama to two terms. For Sanders, it’s a case of what-might-have-been.

And for aspiring Democrats eyeing future White House bids, it serves notice that the presidential demand for a diverse voting coalition isn’t just a general election concern for Republicans too dependent on whites; it actually begins in the Democratic primary.

“You just can’t have a limited strategy focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the country,” said Atlanta-based Democratic consultant Tharon Johnson, who worked for Obama’s 2008 campaign, arguing that Sanders and Clinton, in her first campaign, made that mistake.

South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison, whose early voting state offers the first primary contest with a large contingent of black voters, singled out black women. “They almost single-handedly gave the nomination to Secretary Clinton,” he said, after “doing that for Sen. Obama” in 2008.

The two campaigns bear strikingly similar trajectories. Each time, the top two contenders split Iowa and New Hampshire before a competitive finish in Nevada. But Obama then trounced Clinton in South Carolina by a 2-to-1 margin. Blacks made up about 55 percent of the electorate, and Obama won about four of five of them, according to exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and television networks.

This year, Clinton won South Carolina 3-to-1, with exit polling reflected a whopping 86-14 advantage for Clinton over Sanders among blacks, who accounted for an estimated 61 percent of primary ballots.

Unable to catch up, Sanders sometimes dismissed Clinton’s victories, saying the primary schedule “distorts reality” because the South is so conservative.

Yet in late 2015, before voting began, he began emphasizing his personal civil rights advocacy in the 1960s — including being arrested for protesting segregated housing in Chicago. He also massaged his economic inequality arguments to focus on minorities. “The African-American community … will respond,” he predicted to AP in September.