The African-American vote, usually an afterthought until the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries are over, is now one of the biggest factors in the Democratic primary.
The campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders see the support of blacks as crucial to their paths to the nomination, and the potential entrance of Vice President Joe Biden looms as a huge unknown, as Biden would also aggressively compete in heavily-black areas if he becomes a candidate.
Having already surged in Iowa and New Hampshire because of his support from white liberals, Sanders is trying hard to appeal to African-Americans and rebut the idea that he is a candidate with a narrow, white-only support base. Clinton's aides, acknowledging the rise of Sanders, are reassuring her nervous supporters by emphasizing the former secretary of state's huge lead over Sanders among black and Hispanic voters, who are a larger part of the electorate after Iowa and New Hampshire.
And Clinton is taking steps to shore up that support among African-Americans. The former secretary of state did an interview on Friday with American Urban Radio, then will fly on Saturday from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. to host a reception for those attending the Congressional Black Caucus's annual conference.
On Monday, Clinton will campaign in Louisiana and Arkansas, which hold primaries in March 2016, after the early votes in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In 2008, about half of the voters in the Louisiana Democratic primary were black.
Asked in an interview Thursday by CNN about Sanders' rise in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton defended her performance in those states, but added, "we're moving on to the states that come after."
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Meanwhile, allies of Biden say if he runs for president, he will bank on winning South Carolina, a state where he has vacationed often for the last seven years at Kiawah Island near Charleston and maintains deep ties with local Democratic leaders. A win in South Carolina by Biden will require strong black support, since about half of the Democratic voters there are African-Americans.
And Biden, if he runs, is likely to cast himself as the heir to President Obama, who remains deeply popular among black voters. Biden also attended the black caucus conference on Saturday morning, not giving a speech but spending more than two hours at a breakfast there shaking hands and posing for pictures. On stage, the CBC's chairman, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina called Biden a "longtime CBC friend."
"If Biden ran, he would get the black vote. No question," said one former Obama aide, who worked on the president's 2008 and 2012 campaigns. "People have already voted for him twice."
This aide said he met recently with Biden and urged him to enter the race.
Rick Wade, a South Carolina political operative who oversaw black outreach there and nationally in Obama's 2008 campaign, said, "Biden could do well in South Carolina, he has a strong history here."
Sanders' ascent in Iowa and New Hampshire, states where fewer than 5% of people are black, has both allowed him to start concentrating on other states and heightened his need to, as he now appears a viable candidate who could win the Democratic nomination. And his campaign is aware of both his low polling among blacks and a perception problem from incidents over the summer when he appeared to be annoyed by protesters from the "Black Lives Matter" group.
So over the last few weeks, the senator has campaigned in South Carolina with the author and activist Cornel West, including a stop at Benedict College, a historically black school in Columbia. He has held meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Campaign Zero, a new initiative run by some of the Black Lives Matter activists that is aiming to end police shootings of citizens. And Sanders increasingly speaks in pointed ways about the legacy of racial discrimination in America, most notably in a recent speech in which he suggested that the U.S. was founded on "racist principles."
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