Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders' Last-Minute Dash for Black Voters in South Carolina

This is the first 2016 race featuring a majority African-American electorate.

ByABC News
February 25, 2016, 6:09 PM

— CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters who wanted a glimpse of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders could head to their local diner or town hall.

Now, you’re a lot more likely to find them at church.

In the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, campaigns have increasingly sought out voters on their home turf. And in the first 2016 race featuring a majority African-American electorate, the race is on in the state’s churches, barbershops and beauty salons.

“Folks here in South Carolina really pride themselves on being first in the South,” said state Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison. “They like being the testing ground for messages, to see whether they resonate with southern voters in general, and in particular the African-American community.”

Campaign operatives describe a number of different fronts on which they need to succeed with black voters. The stakes are high -- after all, several states with similar demographics, including Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, vote just three days later.

On the Ground

Last May, Hillary Clinton made her first trip to the Palmetto State since formally announcing her candidacy. Her first stop? Kiki’s Chicken & Waffles, a soul food restaurant in Columbia.

Katie Catalon, president of the National Beauty Culturists’ League and a Clinton supporter, said it was a savvy move.

“Meet with people where they meet,” she advised. “Because if you meet with one person in a barbershop or salon, that person is going back to meet with others in the church or in their neighborhood.”

A quick look at a map also offers a glimpse into the candidates’ itinerary. Both have made stops along South Carolina’s infamous “Corridor of Shame,” a stretch of poor, rural, largely African-American populations that have long complained about underfunded school systems.

In the 2008 primary, Clinton lost by nearly 30 points to then-Sen. Barack Obama, who inspired unprecedented turnout among black voters. This time around, polls show Clinton leading Sanders among African-Americans by a 3-to-1 margin. According to Clinton’s South Carolina state director, Clay Middleton, it’s not simply a function of familiarity -- it’s the result of a concentrated effort.

"Hillary Clinton has a record of fighting for African Americans and long ties back to South Carolina, but we're not taking that support for granted,” Middleton told ABC News in a statement. “We have been in South Carolina since April reaching out to voters at churches, barbershops, beauty salons, and HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] to make the case that Hillary Clinton will be the best president for African Americans.”

For months, the Clinton campaign has been handing out sign-up sheets to local churches and businesses, encouraging them to preach about the importance of voting, or to display pro-Clinton posters.

Sanders staffers, meanwhile, have simply been trying to introduce their candidate to voters.

“We don’t hand out a piece of paper and say, ‘would you do this,’” said state director Christopher Covert. “We try to have a conversation with people. Which is why at the beginning we went a little bit slower. We’ve been in every African-American newspaper in the state, every African-American-centric magazine over the last two months. We’ve been working really hard, and now we’re looking forward to Saturday.”

Over the Airwaves

Both sides have enlisted familiar voices in the African-American community to help spread campaign messages -- especially to the large media markets of Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. On Friday, Hillary for America released an ad narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, gravely recounting Clinton’s advocacy for minorities.

A few days later, director Spike Lee told South Carolinians to “wake up!” in a radio spot that played statewide. Referring to Sanders as “my brother,” Lee claimed the campaign’s lack of corporate underwriters meant the Vermont senator wasn’t “on the take.”

Among this audience, said Jaime Harris, endorsements aren’t about name recognition. They’re about trust -- and Clinton has some of the most noteworthy names in the African-American community on her side, including veteran Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina.

“If you’re being introduced to somebody, people judge you by the folks that are with you,” Harris told ABC News. “I know Senator Sanders has some good surrogates out there from Hollywood, like Angela Basset and Vivica A. Fox. But when someone can bring in [congressional representatives] John Lewis and Maxine Waters, and then you get an endorsement from Jim Clyburn -- I mean, if the key demo is African-American women over 45, that’s hard to beat.”

On Campus

As Clinton solidifies her grasp on the state, and on African-American voting blocs in particular, one group has remained elusive: young people. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, the former secretary of state has only a modest lead over Sanders when it comes to black voters under 45.

On Thursday night in Charleston, two Black Lives Matter activists paid $500 to infiltrate a private fundraising event for Clinton, unfurling a small banner and asking her to recant her support for policies that led to “mass incarceration” of African Americans.

Clinton has placed her focus squarely on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in recent days, meeting with several black student groups ahead of the primary.

State representative Wendell Gilliard, who supports Sanders, isn’t surprised that his older peers are standing with Clinton, while his younger constituents flock to the Vermont senator. He told ABC News that Democratic politics, particularly in the African-American community, have held a top-down approach for generations.

“That’s the machine,” he said at a party fundraiser in Charleston. “It’s the good old Southern machine that people, too many times, let manipulate us as a whole. But whether you’re African American, white, Jewish ... we’re not afraid of the machine anymore. Because that’s the old way, you see?”

Invoking the backroads of the rural South rather than the streets of Manhattan is no accident, said Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison, who advised Sanders’ campaign to stick to “pocketbook issues.”

“One of the things I’ve said in my conversations with Sanders folks is I know a big part of his stump speech is talking about Wall Street,” he told ABC News. “Folks here are so far from Wall Street. It might as well be just as distant as Moscow. You have to make it real, in what they see in the real world.”

Voters in South Carolina won’t see as much of Sanders as his rival. While Clinton remained in state, Sanders took 48 hours to travel to other regions where he appears to have a better chance of victory.

In the meantime, Christopher Covert says he’s confident Hillary Clinton won’t win African-American votes by the 3-to-1 margin polls are predicting.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the number of people you see in polls are still trying to make up their minds ... and we’ve got one hell of a field campaign.”