Clinton’s South Carolina Firewall Crushes Sanders, Setting Her Up as the anti-Trump

The Vermont senator’s inability to connect to African-Americans isn’t just a matter of numbers; it clashes with core values of liberal Democrats.

Hillary Clinton's speech following her victory in South Carolina, Feb. 27, 2016.
AFP

Hillary Clinton didn’t just beat Bernie Sanders in South Carolina, she demolished him. With an astounding victory margin of almost 50 points, with the incredibly lopsided support she received from African-Americans, Clinton now approaches Super Tuesday primaries with renewed momentum and with a chance to resume the title of inevitable Democratic candidate. The Bernie revolution, for the time being, is toast.

Clinton’s victory speech reflected this new reality. She glossed over her Democratic rival and addressed the overall election campaign, in general, and the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump, in particular. There’s no need to make America great again, she said, because America had never stopped being great. She touted her old theme of “love and kindness” which only a politician with a renewed boost of self-confidence could allow themselves to do.

It’s hard to claim that Clinton’s resounding victory was in any way a reaction to the all-out war and internal turmoil gripping the GOP in the wake of Trump’s surge, but it nonetheless conveyed a diametrically opposite message: The establishment-supported Clinton versus the raging outsider Trump, the disciplined, tempered and sometimes boring Clinton against the bells and whistles and general outrageousness of Trump, the unifier Clinton who proved her ability to muster the multi-racial Democratic coalition against Trump’s overwhelmingly white supporters, who want to renew their exclusionary grand old days of yore.

Clinton beat Sanders in every county and almost every demographic group in South Carolina, with the exception of under-29’s, first time participants and white men. She won favor across the ideological board, from ultra-liberals to moderates and independents. She won a slim majority of white voters but astonished even her own supporters with a smashing 87%-13% victory among African-Americans.  Those over the age of 65 gave her an Assad-like majority of 97%-3%.

With strong winds behind her, Clinton is now slated to clobber Sanders in all six southern states that are taking part in Super Tuesday, but she has also improved her chances in places such as Colorado, Oklahoma and Minnesota, where the races are much closer. The most crucial battle will apparently be fought in Massachusetts, where Sanders and Clinton are running neck and neck: Sanders will find it hard to recuperate from a loss in his Vermont’s big neighbor to the south.

Despite the efforts he made following his victory in New Hampshire earlier this month, Sanders failed to make headway or create chemistry in his relations with South Carolina African-Americans. They viewed him as a spokesman for detached white liberals from the Northeast, unlike Clinton whose ties with southern blacks go back decades. They were disappointed with Sanders’ inability to relate to local issues and with his refusal to depart from his general theory of inequality. He seemed to ignore the special circumstances of the African-American predicament, as opposed to Clinton’s immersion in local matters, her longstanding ties to South Carolina leaders and the endorsements she garnered from the state’s black politicians.

Sanders lacked Clinton’s familiarity, empathy and personal touch. He came to South Carolina late and left early after realizing that that a victory was outside his reach; Clinton spent long weeks in the state in an effort to create the so-called “firewall” that would stop Sanders in his tracks. On Saturday, Clinton’s wall did the job that it was built to do. 

Sanders failure among African-Americans isn’t simply a matter of numbers; it is also an article of faith. For older Democratic liberals, empathy for blacks and their struggles is still a core value of their beliefs. Unlike Republicans, a Democratic contender cannot hope to live by whites alone.

Nonetheless, at least in theory, Sanders’ campaign is far from finished: he still has many millions of dollars left in his war chest, several states in which he stands a fighting chance of winning and millions of believers whose enthusiasm he must now rekindle. His lackluster concession speech on Saturday night won’t be enough to do the job.

In an election campaign in which anything and everything is possible and the irrevocable is merely temporary, it’s still rather presumptive and exceedingly early to call the race for Clinton. Nonetheless, the sheer dimensions of her victory in South Carolina, which no one foresaw, put her back in the front of the race and in the center of the Democratic stage.  If she repeats her South Carolina performance on Super Tuesday, her way to the Democratic nomination will be all but paved. She will be left to worry about Trump or anyone else who will be her GOP rival but also to fret about the Pandora Box of her email affair, from which evil spirits can emerge at any moment to knock her down and out.