The descent has been less spectacular than that experienced by Jeb Bush, but Hillary Clinton has gone from heir apparent to street scrapper fighting desperately to claim what she thought to be her birthright. A photo finish in Iowa followed by a blowout loss in New Hampshire and a 5-point win in Nevada have made the South, where her 2008 bid dissolved, the 2016 firewall.
As everyone acknowledges, the heavily white electorates of the first two states along the path to the presidential nomination do not mirror the nation’s growing diversity. Party leaders gave South Carolina favored status so that Democratic presidential candidates must demonstrate an ability to connect with African Americans. The Palmetto State’s neighbors have often sought to enjoy some of the attention accorded frontloaded states by scheduling their primaries in the shadow of the South Carolina vote. In 2016 this effort has taken the form of the SEC Primary, an idea of Georgia’s secretary of state Brian Kemp. Just three days after South Carolina Democrats go to the polls, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia will choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
The Clinton camp hopes that the African American voters in the South who flocked to the Obama banner in 2008 and accelerated Hillary’s downward slide will become her savior this year. Black leaders like Rep. John Lewis who defected to Obama in 2008 have returned like prodigal sons and now boost Clinton’s efforts.
African Americans cast disproportionate shares of the votes in southern Democratic primaries. If united, this component of the electorate determines the nominee in Democratic primaries. Recently more than twice as many blacks as whites have voted in the Democratic primaries in South Carolina and will outnumber whites in Alabama and Georgia.
If members of Congress like Lewis and South Carolina’s James Clyburn, the assistant minority leader, convince African Americans to rally to Clinton, she should win in the South. A sweep of these southern states might provide the booster rocket to put the nomination beyond Sanders’ reach.
If the eight southern states voting between February 27 and March 1 provide separation for Clinton, she will owe her nomination to states only one of which might vote for her in November. Arkansas and Tennessee voted Democratic in the 1990s when the ticket was headed by the states’ favorite sons but Tennessee rejected Al Gore in 2000 – one of the many causes for his loss of the presidency. Georgia last voted Democratic in 1992 when Clinton carried the state by 13,700 votes when Ross Perot siphoned off 13 percent of the vote, most of which would have stayed with President Bush. Alabama and Texas have not been in the Democratic column since 1976 when Jimmy Carter swept the old Confederacy missing only the Old Dominion (Virginia). Oklahoma, the state in which Obama failed to carry a single county in 2008, has not supported a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson. Only Virginia which is now purple with reddish highlights returned to the Democratic fold in 2008 and 2012 – it had shared a partisan history with Oklahoma – will probably vote Democratic in 2016.
Sanders has followed something akin to Jimmy Carter’s plan from 1976 by concentrating on and out-performing expectations in the first states to vote. Only now is he turning his attention to the South. Clinton already has an organization in place with prominent endorsers singing her praises.
Changes in the election schedule complicate Sanders’ effort to overtake Clinton and these make a repeat of the Carter strategy less likely. Five of the southern states allow voters to cast ballots in person before Election Day. Early voting has been underway for two week in Georgia, for a week in Arkansas and Texas and has ended in Tennessee. Oklahoma early voting begins on February 25. In the other four early voting states, some share of the electorate had already cast ballots before Sanders’ travel schedule included the South and, like a drag racer, he tried to accelerate from zero to victory in a quarter mile. Sanders has little time to energize the young voters who have been his foot soldiers elsewhere and little time to make in-roads among African American who will be decisive in the region.
Sanders has two things going for him in these frantic days. First, it remains an expectations game – do better than expectations and the media do not count you out. Since Clinton is expected to sweep the South, if Sanders can come in a close second, he gets favorable coverage. Second, Democrats in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont also vote on March 1. These should insure that regardless of how Sanders performs in the South, the day will not be a complete loss.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Richard Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. The Three Governors Controversy (University of Georgia Press 2015) is his most recent book.