Clinton banks on African-American and Hispanic ‘firewall’

Sanders hoping to erode minorities’ backing of Clinton in Nevada and South Carolina

Same fighters, different issues, new arena.

Entering the first voting states in the American south and west with a win and a virtual draw under his belt, underdog Bernie Sanders is hoping to erode Hillary Clinton's strong support among Hispanic-Americans in Nevada and African- Americans in South Carolina.

This is Clinton’s so-called “firewall”, which, according to her campaign playbook, will buttress her support among minorities against a surging Sanders.

Her team hopes that that support will hand her wins in the Nevada Democratic caucus on February 20th and the South Carolina primary on February 27th, giving her momentum heading into the “Super Tuesday” contests in 11 states on March 1st to catapult her to winning the Democratic presidential nomination.


“It is a very good firewall, although it’s not as strong as I would have said last week or two weeks ago,” said Robert Oldendick, professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

Second look

"Sanders's victory in New Hampshire caused people to see him as more electable and to take a second look. His campaign is fairly savvy and recognises that they need to make some in-roads into the African- American community so they have been actively courting that vote."

At the sixth Democratic debate on Thursday night, the fiercest exchanges between Sanders and Clinton were – predictably, with the next states in mind – about race, criminal justice and Barack Obama. He is extremely popular among African-Americans that make up an estimated 55 per cent of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina.

“The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans,” Clinton said, drawing an angry response from Sanders. That was a “low blow”, he said.

“One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate,” the socialist Vermont senator responded.

The candidates have been busy seeking the blessing of prominent members of the African-American community. Clinton stole a march on Sanders by raising the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, a majority-black city, in a strong closing statement at a Democratic debate last month.

This week she received the support of the powerful political arm of Congressional Black Caucus in Washington.

For his first breakfast after New Hampshire, Sanders met Rev Al Sharpton, a figurehead in the black community, at the famed New York restaurant Sylvia's in Harlem. They posed for photographs but the activist leader didn't endorse him.

“I’m more about agendas than a candidate right now,” said Sharpton.

The meeting was set up by Ben Jealous, the former head of the black rights group NAACP, who has endorsed the Vermont senator.

African-American vote

Sanders may have better luck chipping away at Clinton’s average 20-point lead in South Carolina by winning over young African-American voters, as he has done among other young liberals.

This week Sanders received the support of influential writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2015 book Between the World and Me details the American history of violence against black people and racial policing, and won the National Book Award. While Coates has criticised Sanders for rejecting proposals to pay reparations for slavery, he backs the senator's proposals to combat economic inequality.

Law professor Michelle Alexander, author of the acclaimed 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblinded – the go-to textbook for the youth-driven Black Lives Matter movement – delivered an excoriating critique of Bill Clinton's presidency this week that will, by association, not help his wife.


In an essay in the Nation magazine on Wednesday entitled "Why Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve the black vote", Alexander accused the candidate's husband of "ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did".

Listing facts and statistics, she wrote that Bill Clinton "presided over the last increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history"

She added that he signed his 1994 crime Bill that created dozens of capital crimes, and pulled the social security net from under poor families to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative and a prominent African-American supporter of Clinton’s in the Palmetto state, said that Alexander’s critique would have minimal to no effect.

“One, Bill Clinton is not on the ticket. Two, if you want to talk about the 1994 Bill, you have to talk about the fact that Bernie Sanders is the only person in the race who actually voted for it,” he said.

The clash of views in South Carolina will guarantee that its primary will be one of the hardest fought this year. The state saw some of the sharpest exchanges of the 2008 election between Clinton and Obama.

“South Carolina has a nasty tenor when it comes to politics of all types,” said Sellers, “so I don’t expect it to be a docile election by any stretch.”