As Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders enter the next stage of the nomination contest locked in a tight battle, much is being made of the role of African-American voters on the eventual outcome. To be clear, African-Americans will dominate the Democratic primaries in critical southern states and if the nomination gets decided in early March Black voters will play the decisive role.

Conventional wisdom holds that Clinton has a distinctive advantage with Black voters. If that is correct, a look at the dynamics of two critical states – South Carolina and Georgia – shows how central African-Americans are to Clinton’s nomination chances.

South Carolina, the first southern state to vote, holds the next primary. In 2008, the most recent competitive presidential primary for Democrats, non-White voters vastly outnumbered White voters 291,317 to 225,536. Despite having held strong early leads in polls in the state, Clinton lost the primary by more than a 2-1 margin to Barack Obama. Perhaps more than any other contest that year, the South Carolina primary showcased the significance of the racial factor. Clinton had been an early favorite among some Black leaders but the Obama bounce after Iowa followed by overheated attacks on his candidacy in South Carolina by former president Bill Clinton mobilized Black voters for the eventual party nominee. Obama took 78% of African-American votes. Clinton never recovered Black support and Obama rode strong African-American turnouts to nomination and general election victory.

Palmetto State primaries have become more heavily non-White since that historic contest. In the 2012 regular Democratic primary, non-Whites cast 70,374 votes compared with 41,119 Whites. More telling, in the 2014 U.S. Senate primary, non-Whites outnumbered Whites by more than 2-1 (90,317 to 42,004). The heated GOP contest for the presidential nomination this year will keep most Whites in the Republican primary while Blacks dominate the Democratic vote. If Clinton, once again the favorite among Blacks, retains their support, she has a clear shot at halting Sanders’s post-New Hampshire momentum, assuming no 2008-like blunder.

Turning to the critical Super Tuesday states on March 1, Clinton has her best shot at derailing Sanders completely with a big sweep of the SEC primary states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia – anchored by Black votes. In each of these states the electorate has become more non-White since the 2008 contest that she lost.

The Democratic primary landscape of Georgia, second only to Texas in delegates awarded on March 1, gives Clinton further encouragement. In 2008, Black voters outnumbered Whites 585,023 to 418,760. Obama took the Black vote 88-11% over Clinton and won the state by a more than 2-1 margin. Again, earlier polls had a more competitive race and prominent African-American leaders such as Rep. John Lewis initially had backed Clinton’s candidacy but switched to Obama after South Carolina. Like in South Carolina, Georgia’s Democratic primary electorate has become more heavily Black.

As the African-American portion of the Democratic electorate has grown larger since 2008, the potential role of race in the primary outcome is key.  Like prodigal sons, Lewis and other leaders have returned to the Clinton fold. Those who went AWOL on her cannot credibly do so a second time. African-American leadership support for Clinton in Georgia includes three of four Democratic members of the congressional delegation, the minority leader and the whip in the House, the minority whip in the Senate, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and his predecessor Andrew Young, among others.  Thus far Sanders has little support among African-American leaders in the state and there is little evidence that any undeclared leader such as South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn will come out for the Vermont senator.

Even though the landscape looks very good for Clinton in the southern primary states, we issue some caveats. No one considers her able to mobilize the African-American community as impressively as Obama did in 2008. Given her poor performance with Black voters that year, and some still raw feelings from hers and Bill Clinton’s sometimes harsh attacks on Obama in that nomination cycle, Hillary Clinton has to get African-Americans to the polls.

There is also the intriguing possibility of a generational split among African-Americans given Sanders’s deep support from young voters.  Endorsements from African-American leaders help Clinton, but it is not clear that they can deliver votes for her as was easily done for Obama. Some young African-Americans may break with the established leaders to show their independence. If that were to happen, the southern primaries will be but a stop along a prolonged Clinton-Sanders contest.

Charles S. Bullock III is the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at University of Georgia and Mark J. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. Their book, The New Politics of the Old South, is in its fifth edition.


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