WASHINGTON — “We’re not taking anything for granted.”
That was the mantra of Hillary Clinton’s South Carolina campaign in 2016.
Heading into the primary on Saturday, Clinton was polling so far ahead of Bernie Sanders that the extent of her ground game seemed almost unnecessary.
Did she need her army of Congressional Black Caucus Democrats filling up church pews and barbershops? Was it crucial for her to have spent the entire week in the Palmetto State when 11 Super Tuesday primaries loomed large on the horizon?
And how much of a difference did it make, really, that the state’s most influential African-American Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, appeared in a TV commercial on her behalf?
Clinton’s camp reportedly stopped polling in South Carolina in the week leading up to the primary. Even Sanders could read the tea leaves. He spent most of the last seven days campaigning outside the state and chose to speak to supporters Saturday night from far-way Minnesota.
“She probably could have phoned it in,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “But it was smart of her not to.”
It’s true that Clinton’s loyalty among black voters, who make up the state’s largest Democratic voting bloc, was never in doubt. Her allies in the African-American community have emphasized the extent of her ties to the people and policies that matter to them. But it wasn’t enough for Clinton to just win the South Carolina primary; she needed to win it by a landslide.
Practically speaking, she needed South Carolina to be the site of her first decisive victory of the cycle, especially before Super Tuesday. On a personal level, she wanted to write a triumphant epilogue to the demoralizing story of eight years ago, when she suffered a bruising defeat to Barack Obama. These realities were what drove Clinton’s campaign to go big this year, and ultimately what led to her resounding victory.
In 2008, there were forces working against Clinton in South Carolina right off the bat. With African-American voters making up such a large portion of the Democratic electorate, it wasn’t easy for Clinton to compete against Obama, who represented the future of black leadership. Her attitude that she was the heir apparent to the party’s nomination didn’t help.
In 2016, Clinton’s decades of relationship-building with the state’s black community stood in starker contrast to that of Sanders. But lest there be any confusion, her campaign coordinated with legions of CBC members who wanted to be helpful in South Carolina in the homestretch. In large part, their job was to be character witnesses who could reassure any remaining skeptics that Clinton was indeed on their side.
“We go down there and it’s like, ‘Look, who are the people who know her best? The people who have served with her,’” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a CBC member who stumped for Clinton in South Carolina during both of her presidential campaigns. “I’ve worked with Sanders in (the U.S. Capitol) and I can tell you, along with 43 other African-American members, that he has never, ever, ever, ever been involved in any kind of leadership, not on the Voting Rights Act, on the CBC budget, on criminal justice reform, none of that. I’ve never had a conversation with him in my life.”
Meanwhile, Sanders has focused his campaign rhetoric more around income inequality than racial justice, a choice that might have been to his disadvantage at this particular moment in South Carolina history, according to Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon.
“Bernie Sanders for 40 years has been talking about income inequality, so when he brings that down here they say, ‘well that is something of great concern to working-class black voters,’” said Huffmon. “And that’s true. And he also talks about racial inequality. But Hillary does the reverse. First she talks about racial inequality, then income inequality. And over past year in South Carolina, we’ve seen the (killing) of Walter Scott, the (killing) of the Emanuel Nine. Issues of race have been made, literally, life and death.”
Clinton’s political instinct in South Carolina this cycle was to let her campaign message meld around the issues of immediate importance to voters, many of which fell naturally under the umbrella of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. She also let herself be associated with Obama, not only as a former member of his administration but as the current candidate who would carry on his legacy in the Oval Office.
“You can’t overstate the significance of Clinton’s associations with Obama while Sanders has criticized him,” Knotts said. “She ran against Obama in 2008 but then she goes in third in the guy’s cabinet and has aligned herself with him ... and Obama remains extremely popular here in the African-American community.”
All this adds up to a very different kind of campaign than the one Clinton ran in 2008, one that relied on the traditional model of courting establishment donors and hiring high-paid consultants and strategists. Her ground game in South Carolina eight years ago played by all the rules, while Obama’s campaign was brazenly breaking them.
“We didn’t even know if what we were doing was going to work,” Laurin Manning, Obama’s S.C. director of political operations in 2008, said recently. “It had never been done before, and some of our higher-profile supporters were poo-pooing what we were doing in the summer of 2007, when we were so down in the polls and looking at (Obama campaign manager) David Plouffe and asking why weren’t we running a campaign like it had always been done here before.”
Manning, now the membership and communications director for the Coastal Conservation League, recalled the moment on primary election day when she realized their strategy was working and Obama was heading toward a massive win the state.
“We saw clusters of Clinton supporters out holding up signs. One of the things we loved to say in 2008 is, ‘yard signs don’t vote,’” she said. “We certainly wouldn’t have used a volunteer to hold up a sign on the street. They need to be making phone calls with a list of people who we know are going to vote and make sure they do vote and then recording that vote.”
This time around, Clinton’s campaign looked a lot more like Obama’s. At her rally in Columbia on Saturday night, she cheered her grass-roots supporters and how so many of her donors gave under $100 each. She thanked Clyburn for his support and said how excited she was to work with him in Congress. And basking in the glow of her victory — which news outlets called in her favor within a minute of the polls closing — she declared this was the moment her campaign went national.
“We are going to compete for every vote in every state,” Clinton said. “We are not taking any thing, and we are not taking any one, for granted.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.