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Opinion: South Carolina will decide Sanders' and Clinton's fates

South Carolina, the state that effectively decided the Democratic nomination in 2008, will do so again in 2016.

South Carolina, the state that effectively decided the Democratic nomination in 2008, will do so again in 2016. For all the grandeur and hype around the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, and despite all the fury that followed in the spring state skirmishes, it is here in the most genteel of Southern states, where the shadow of racial matters is always present, that Hillary Clinton will essentially win the Democratic nomination or see it begin to slip from her grasp. It is also here where Sen. Bernie Sanders will either be able to break through and compete effectively for the African-American vote, or he will not be the Democratic nominee. If he cannot crack Clinton’s so-called “firewall” and compete effectively for the African-American vote in South Carolina this weekend, the contest is more or less over. 

Let’s go back to 2007 for context: Hilary Clinton held a dominant lead nationally as she ran roughly 20 points ahead of Obama in October through December of 2007. Meanwhile, then-Sen. Obama was dogged by national reporters’ questioning of whether or not he was “black enough.”

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The racial narrative surrounding the black vote then, as now, struck me as so illogical as to be bizarre in a way that’s particularly unique to racial matters. It went something like this: Black voters will vote for him simply because he’s black – despite the fact that Clinton was running far ahead with black voters for quite some time. And despite the fact that Rev. Al Sharpton, who while a leading voice in the black community by any measure, certainly didn’t run away with the black vote in 2004.

At the same time and in direct contradiction, another narrative held that when black voters saw white voters supporting  Obama, they would then collectively make the political calculation about his chances of winning and throw their support to him, which is what some argue happened with his win in Iowa.  

That logic argues black voters needed whites to validate Obama and/or needed the math to be right in order to support the black candidate — despite the fact that millions of us mobilized like never before for Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988, even though we knew he realistically had very little chance of actually securing the nomination.  

The reality is, of course, more complicated. Obama didn’t win over the black vote from Clinton in 2008 because black America woke up one morning and said, “Oh, wait … he’s black!” Nor did they move en masse towards Obama because white voters in Iowa supported him. (Sorry, but most black voters don’t look to white voters in the Midwest to validate their candidate preference.)

Judging from the way so many stories after Iowa pinned blacks’ support of Obama to his victory in the Hawkeye State that year, you would think Des Moines was Harlem. Obama actually started to tie and lead in South Carolina Democratic primary polls, including CBS News and Rasmussen, in mid-December of 2007 — before the January 3, 2008, Iowa caucus.

African-American voters gradually moved toward Obama because of his campaign’s well-orchestrated strategy to tell the electorate in South Carolina who he was. This strategy was implemented both on the airways and, more importantly, on the ground in the community — in the churches, barbershops, and beauty salons that are pillars of black social and civic life in the South. Because, in the story of Obama — from community organizer to U.S. senator to a strong husband and father preaching fatherhood responsibility — black voters saw the hope in America. The very hope to which every African-American since emancipation has clung to by faith, and because, in him, they saw someone who represented their values and who they trusted to fight for them and bring about change.

So in 2008, when the black vote broke hard for Obama in South Carolina, supporting him 78 percent to Clinton’s 19 percent, the die was cast: Hillary Clinton was not going to be the Democratic nominee and the race was effectively over. 

That margin in 2008 closely resembles Clinton’s lead over Sanders with black voters this past weekend in Nevada.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes the stage to deliver remarks to supporters at an arena in Greenville, S.C., Feb. 21, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes the stage to deliver remarks to supporters at an arena in Greenville, S.C., Feb. 21, 2016.

Demographics are destiny, and the Democratic primaries now are a foreshadowing of the electorate to come, particularly in the South. Take Georgia for example: While census calculations have the country as a whole growing close to majority-minority around 2040, Georgia is likely to be very close to majority-minority two decades earlier — sometime after 2020, according to the Center for American Progress.

The impact of minority population growth on our country’s politics is most distinct and decisive here in the South, at the Democratic primary level. If you can’t effectively compete for the African-American vote, you can’t effectively compete for South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland – states approaching a one-third if not a majority black Democratic primary electorate. 

If you can’t compete for the black vote, you are all but ceding most of the South and giving the candidate who can win the lion’s share of the black vote an advantage from which it is all but impossible to recover. African-American voters are in the political catbird seat henceforth for the Democratic presidential nomination. It is hard to see how the preference of the African-American voter doesn’t determine the eventual Democratic nominee for some time to come in this country.

So for better or worse, this weekend’s Democratic battle in South Carolina will determine the party’s nominee.   

Cornell Belcher is president of brilliant corners Research. He was pollster for the DNC under Chairman Howard Dean and served on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 polling team.