ORANGEBURG, South Carolina – The last time Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both spoke at the two historically black colleges that virtually share a campus here, Sanders acknowledged he had a long way to go with the state’s predominantly black Democratic electorate if he was going to win the state’s primary at the end of February.
“I believe we can win here in South Carolina,” Sanders said in November at South Carolina State University, speaking to a half-empty room that was largely white. “But when I began this campaign, I would bet that 80 to 90 percent of the people in South Carolina didn’t even know who Bernie Sanders was.”
On Friday, the eve of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South Democratic primary, Sanders returned to neighboring Claflin University to tout how far he had came. But even he didn’t seem to be under the illusion that it was nearly far enough.
“When we first came here, we knew very few people,” Sanders said to a more than half-empty gymnasium Friday evening. “But in the last nine months, we have come a very long way, and that’s because of your support.”
Clinton is expecting a conclusive victory Saturday. Polls suggest she’s ahead by 25 percentage points, thanks to her disproportionate support among African-Americans. And the contest comes after Sanders failed to punch a hole in Clinton’s so-called firewall in last week’s Nevada caucuses.
“That goddamn firewall’s got a crack in it,” touted Killer Mike, the rapper who has become one of Sanders most prominent surrogates. But cracks don’t bring down walls, and Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination is much murkier now than Clinton’s. South Carolina could be the first in a combination punch, with Clinton hoping to to deliver a body blow next week on Super Tuesday.
A few hours before Sanders spoke and less than a mile away, the Democratic front-runner took the stage in front of a mostly packed gymnasium at next-door South Carolina State. She was introduced by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat, and there was a section of local black and party leaders up front.
“I’m a proud defender of President Obama,” Clinton declared to cheers for the man still revered by many voters here. “I was honored to serve as his secretary of state. We became not just partners, but friends, and I’m not going to let the Republicans rip away the progress we have made under his leadership.”
The only sign of trouble came from Rod Webber, a camera-wielding white man from Boston who loudly interrupted the event to protest Clinton’s record. “Hillary Clinton is not the person for the black men,” Webber said as black men supporting Clinton urged him to leave the event.
It was a similar story when Clinton visited Claflin in November, shortly before Sanders visited South Carolina State. Her event was packed and nearly 100-percent black. She learned how to dance the wobble and posed for selfies with women who said they’ve been eager to vote for Hillary Clinton since she campaigned here for her husband in 1991.
“The hard part is getting beyond the Clinton brand. The Clinton brand is a bit like Coca-Cola. You know, it’s a Southern brand. Everybody knows it. It tastes good,” former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous, who is supporting Sanders, said recently.
Sanders, who hails from one of the whitest states in the country, Vermont, made an earnest effort. His campaign hired an army of paid canvassers larger than their staff in Iowa – more than 200 in total – opened 11 offices in the state and spent more than $1.5 million on radio and TV ads here. When reporters puzzled why Sanders was investing so much time and money in a state where polls suggested he was bound to lose, aides said it was a demonstration that Sanders’ message could resonate anywhere.
More recently, however, Sanders seemed to give up hope in South Carolina, focusing more on later contests.
His campaign hoped to narrow Clinton’s lead to significantly less than 20 percentage points, both to score some delegates here and to show Sanders could win over African-American voters.
And indeed, there were signs of progress in the dozens of young black voters who came to see Sanders. “He’s thinking the same things that I’m thinking,” said Ahmar Frye, an African-American high school senior in Orangeburg, who said all of his friends are supporting Sanders.
Jamie Cabbagetalk, a freshman at Claflin from Marion, said she was not planning on voting until she heard about Sanders. She likes that’s he’s a radical who is not afraid to speak out bluntly on racial justice. “I just believe Sanders is the best candidate for African-Americans,” she said.
But as the mostly empty seats here and at a later rally in Columbia reminded, it was too little too late. Maybe if the primary were later or Sanders had started earlier, aides and supporters will always wonder.
“Sanders has really had a nice campaign here, but he started so late,” said Don Fowler, a former state and national Democratic Party chairman who is supporting Clinton. “Hillary’s going to win a comfortable margin.”
Another problem is that high-profile defections aside, Sanders seems to have peeled off few black voters from Clinton. Instead, his black supporters appear to be largely young people voting for the first time or older people who haven’t voted in a while.
On Friday night at his final event in Columbia before the primary, the mostly white crowd of a few hundred did not come close to filling the space. It was a far cry from the boisterous caucus- and primary-eve events Sanders has held in the previous three contests, where big-name bands thrilled massive young audiences.
“Welcome to the political revolution,” Sanders said.