Black turnout boosts Clinton in a big way

Voters get stickers after they finish casting ballots during the Democratic primary Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016 at Charleston Charter School of Math and Science. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Fewer South Carolina voters turned out Saturday than in the party’s record-breaking 2008 presidential primary — or in last week’s GOP primary.

Still, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended up with more votes Saturday than GOP winner Donald Trump got a week ago, and she has the party’s African-American base to thank.

Because Palmetto State Democrats divvy up their delegates proportionately, Saturday wasn’t a total loss for her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. He is projected to get 14 of the state’s 53 delegates up for grabs.

Last week, Trump won all 50 of the state’s Republican delegates, even though he got only a third of the GOP vote here. The Republican Party divides its delegates in a winner-take-all format based on results statewide and in each of the seven congressional districts.

Overall, more than 12 percent of eligible South Carolina voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary Saturday, not nearly as many as the 25 percent who voted in the GOP primary.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz released a statement praising her party’s turnout before chiding the GOP. “Republican turnout has been driven by a theatrical screaming match, featuring childish and insulting behavior.”

Clinton’s vote total Saturday didn’t quite reach the 294,898 votes that Barack Obama received in 2008 — the state’s most recent Democratic presidential primary — but she almost doubled the 140,990 votes she received in 2008. That year’s contest had more candidates on the ballot.

Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, expected a strong turnout Saturday, but not a record-breaking one.

“As Hillary found out in 2008, and as Bernie is finding out, neither Hillary nor Bernie is Barack Obama,” Huffmon said. “He (Obama) just excited the base in a brand new way. Hillary is exciting and her run is historic as well, but it’s not the first time, so it doesn’t have quite the novelty that it did in 2008.”

Democratic turnout has dropped in all three early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada compared to 2008 when Obama shattered records with his winning coalition of young people, first-time voters and minorities.

Huffmon said Clinton’s team, which includes veterans from Obama’s successful campaign, took care to build a strong ground game in South Carolina.

“They’re much more nimble this time around than their structure was in 2008,” he said.

Black voters not only overwhelmingly favored Clinton — exit polls showed Sanders received more votes from white Democrats — but black voters also turned out in waves.

For instance, the predominantly black counties of Williamsburg and Orangeburg had turnouts of almost 24 percent, and they went for Clinton over Sanders by almost a 9-1 margin.

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Neighboring Berkeley County, which has a higher proportion of white voters, went for Clinton by 72 percent — but only 12 percent of its voters turned out. Sanders did relatively well in Pickens County (44 percent), which has the state’s highest percentage of white residents, but turnout there was less than 7 percent.

There was an African-American candidate on the ballot Saturday, but Chicago businessman Willie Wilson is a longshot who has not qualified for debates nor for a spot on any other early voting state’s ballot. He received fewer than 1,500 votes Saturday.

Turnout in Dorchester and Charleston counties was 11 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Clinton won Charleston by a 2-1 margin, while she won in Dorchester by a slightly better 7-3 margin.

Allendale County, which has the highest percentage of black voters, had a turnout of more than 19 percent, 91 percent of which voted for Clinton.

Saturday’s lower turnout — at least compared to the Republican’s number — may reflect a relative quiet Democratic campaign here.

“Let’s be honest, the circus atmosphere of the Republican campaign has sort of sapped the excitement out of the room when it comes to the Democratic race,” Huffmon said.

Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.