Tightening state Democratic primary: A contest of a different color

At 3:10 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, a Secret Service guy pushed open the locked doors of the Memminger Auditorium from inside and told the lingering crowd hoping to get in, "The auditorium is filled to capacity. No one will be allowed in!"

Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders.

I arrived at the Memminger about two minutes after the scheduled 3 p.m. start of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' town hall, and there were two lines of people waiting to get in. Most of them were white, and while the majority were college age and in their 20s, there were more than a few who were middle aged and older.

The Post and Courier Web article on the rally later Tuesday said the crowd inside was "predominantly white." Since I wasn't able to get in the Memminger, I couldn't see for myself. Charleston is 70% white, so it wasn't necessarily surprising that most of the rally participants were white.

It is true that Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite to win the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, has strong connections with blacks in the Palmetto State.going back to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. That's why Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who had his skull fractured when police attacked the peaceful voting-rights march he was helping to lead across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 51 years ago, endorsed Clinton.

Lewis said he "never saw" Sanders on the Movement scene in those tempestuous days. Still, Sanders, as a college student, attended the March on Washington in August 1963, where Lewis, as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was a speaker and organizer.

Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton.

Clinton calls Sanders a "one-issue candidate" because of his incessant portrayal of an economically divided America where the super-rich 1% lord it over the poor and middle class. There are no racial dimensions to Sanders' basic argument. Clinton has been putting race into the foreground of her basic campaign messages, a move she hopes will prevent blacks -- in South Carolina and elsewhere -- from defecting to Sanders. 

She speaks forthrightly about America needing to "face up to the reality of systemic racism." But the Vermont senator's campaign site provides extensive details of his stand for racial justice and against what he calls physical, legal, political, economic and environmental violence.

Sanders has been making strong, headline-getting connections with the families of some of the victims of violence. During an earlier campaign appearance Tuesday at the University of South Carolina, he was introduced by Erica Garner, eldest daughter of Eric Garner, the New York City black who died on a shopping-center sidewalk in Staten Island in 2014 after he was put in a choke-hold by a city policeman following his arrest for selling  tobacco products without a license. Earlier in the campaign, Sanders received a change-of-mind endorsement from state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, the attorney who has been representing the family of Walter Scott, the black North Charleston resident who, according to charges,  was shot to death by a North Charleston police officer following a minor traffic stop last summer. Bamberg had earlier backed Clinton. In his endorsement of Sanders in late January, Bamberg said, "Bernie represents bold new leadership and is not afraid to challenge the status quo."

Clinton holds a lead in recent polling that approaches 20 points, but Sanders has closed the gap considerably since last fall when he looked like a very long shot. Both candidates have extensive door-to-door voter canvassing operations and phone banks, but the impact of those efforts won't be known until votes are counted.

In past state Democratic primaries, older blacks have been the most reliable voters, with up to 70% of them casting ballots. In 2008, they went nearly 4 to 1 for Barack Obama to help give him his surprise victory over Clinton and pave the way to his nomination and election victory that November.

In that primary, Clinton lost to a black man. In 2016, she is running against a white man. The majority of voters in the Feb. 27 state Democratic primary are expected to be black.

Will enough older black voters, who were getting comfortable with Clinton and her candidacy before Sanders began to make an impression last fall, stay with her in her tightening race against Sanders? Will enough younger blacks who are enthusiastic for Sanders be registered and actually vote? Will the results on Feb. 27 produce another surprise result, but of a different color?

The Washington Post today (Wednesday) ran an article headed, "Hillary Clinton's firewall may be missing some bricks." The missing bricks are more likely to be found in Nevada  and other Western states, where non-white voters are mostly Hispanic, not black, as they are in South Carolina. While black voters have Clinton's back, as the article says, Hispanics may not prove as loyal. 

The idea will get tested Saturday when Nevada Democrats will caucus to choose between Clinton and Sanders. A slightly higher percentage of  Hispanics compared to blacks will be voting in the caucuses.

[The Associated Press projected Clinton as the winner of the Nevada caucuses at 5:15 p.m. (ET) Saturday. The AP put her ahead of Sanders at that point by 52 to 48. A minute later, Clinton sent out this tweet: "To everyone who turned out in every corner of Nevada with determination and heart: This is your win. Thank you. -H."

[In her victory speech in Las Vegas, Clinton stressed inclusive solutions to the issues she's campaign on, like "systemic racism," stagnating middle-class and lower-income earnings, the uncertainties faced by undocumented migrants from Latin America and the tuition debt-load of college graduates. "The President of the United States can't do it alone," she told the cheering crowd. "It's got to be all the United States of America."]

TOM GRUBISICH