Could Clinton Lose Support From Black Voters (Again)?

Clinton's black support base evaporated in 2008, but can she retain it in 2016?

"Don't you even think about taking my votes." — (AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 25, 2016 at 10:04 PM ET

With the first Democratic primary rounding the corner, Hillary’s firm grasp on black voter support is becoming increasingly perilous. Erica Garner, daughter of the late Eric Garner, endorsed Bernie Sanders in a Washington Post editorial published on Thursday, stating, “Black Americans—all Americans—need a leader with a record that speaks for itself. And to me, it’s clear. Of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders is our strongest ally.”

And with a month until the South Carolina Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton recently lost another supporter who might turn out to be significant in the key state. The lawyer for the family of Walter L. Scott, a Charleston man who was shot and killed by a police officer, has rescinded on his earlier endorsement of Hillary Clinton and publicly declared his support for Bernie Sanders on Monday.

“Hillary Clinton is more a representation of the status quo when I think about politics or about what it means to be a Democrat,” said Justin T. Bamberg, the lawyer and a member of the South Carolina House. ““Bernie Sanders on the other hand is bold. He doesn’t think like everyone else. He is not afraid to call things as they are.”

Bamberg is just one supporter, but his shift conjures a hypothetical—with a bit of a precedent. Clinton has been able to carry the support of black voters throughout this election season. But as the race progresses, pollsters will be thinking back to Clinton’s past missteps when it comes to campaigning and race—missteps that some say cost her the 2008 democratic nomination.

Early on in her first campaign for the democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton was carrying the African-American vote over Barack Obama, still largely an unknown at that point. In August 2007, she had six percentage points on him in terms of favorability among black Democrats. In October, Clinton led Obama by 24 percent. But things turned quickly by January, when polls showed that Obama had support from 59 percent of black Democrats, and Clinton had sunk to 31 percent.

So, what happened? According to Jason Johnson, a political editor of The Root, Clinton’s loss of favor among black voters could be traced back to January 7, 2008, just two weeks before the South Carolina Democratic primary. The shift came when she made an controversial comment about Obama, comparing him to John F. Kennedy before saying, “but he was assassinated,” which was left hanging, open to interpretation  She also made comments that some felt downplayed Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the civil rights movement. The controversial statements hit a sour note among black voters, and Johnson claims this was a significant reason for Clinton’s loss in South Carolina, and then throughout the country. At a voter exit poll, 78 percent of black voters in the key “early state” said they had voted for Obama, and 88 percent said he had been attacked unfairly by Clinton.

This week in South Carolina, Clinton currently holds a significant lead on Sanders, boasting 76 percent support ahead of the primaries among African-Americans compared to his 22 percent. While Sanders’ poll numbers among black residents may be low, it’s worth noting that they’ve increased fivefold from just 4 percent in September, and Clinton’s have dipped slightly from a high of 82 percent in November. Sanders also holds a higher percentage of support from white voters within the state than Hillary does, indicative of a narrowing gap between the two candidates’ overall polling numbers.

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While he has been so far unable to carry favorability among the demographic, Sanders has shown, at least, a genuine desire to learn and adapt. He showed his ability to swim with the currents in conversation by hiring Symone Sanders, a Black Lives Matter activist, as his press secretary in August, after he was confronted by demonstrators in Arizona months earlier. He is also enthusiastically supported by Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike, who cited Sanders’ stance on the Voting Rights Act during his endorsement speech and is currently campaigning for the Vermont senator in Iowa.

When asked, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” via a Facebook post from an Iowa resident at the third Democratic debate, Sanders responded simply, “Black lives matter,” beckoning a shriek of support and rounds of applause before he called for an end to institutional racism.

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This close to the start of the primaries, it’s quite likely that Clinton—whose campaign has featured some awkward moments with Black Lives Matter activists and a Kwanzaa-themed Twitter icon—also has black voters on her mind. And in just a few weeks, they’ll get to decide.