Displayed on the wall of Catherine Kelly’s downtown beauty salon are newspaper articles from Barack Obama’s historic 2008 S.C. primary win, and thank-you postcards from the president and first lady.
Recently, the display also included a photo of Obama and Hillary Clinton. The message says, “Remember to vote in the South Carolina Democratic Primary.” It’s signed: Hillary Clinton.
First, Clinton’s aides left signs. “Then they come back to see: ‘Are you still on board?’ ” said Kelly – known locally as “Ms. Cat” – of the Clinton’s campaign’s repeated visits.
Clinton’s S.C. strategy – aligning herself closely with Obama, systematically reaching out to African-American voters and persistently returning to them to ensure their support and encourage them to go vote – paid off Saturday.
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Now, she plans to ride that strategy across the South next week, in the Super Tuesday contests, to the Democratic nomination.
African-Americans and older voters – Clinton’s strongest supporters – showed up Saturday at S.C. polls, helping the former secretary of state handily beat U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic primary.
The win – though decisive – was hard-fought.
Sanders’ campaign impressed and surprised S.C. politicos by rousing the passions of activists and young voters, and winning some African-American voters who, at first, did not know anything about him.
But time worked against Sanders, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and one of six superdelegates to the Democratic convention that will nominate the party’s candidate for president.
“What Sen. Sanders discovered is that you can have a great message and money, but time is not something that waits on anyone,” Cobb-Hunter said, adding Sanders has made Clinton a better candidate by pushing her to prove herself to progressives.
Sanders success also showed “that the black community is not a monolith,” voting in concert, she said.
But the stronger winds were in Clinton’s sails.
Many S.C. Democrats, especially women, were attracted to the historic opportunity to elect a woman to the White House, something they set aside eight years to elect the first black president.
Clinton built her win on deep ties to the state, dating back to the 1970s, and on coalitions of supporters and endorsements from the state’s leading Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s only African-American Democrat in Congress.
The former secretary of state also outmaneuvered Sanders on the ground, courting supporters through aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts.
Clinton started her campaign last year, emphasizing her commitment to earning every vote – a mantra of her campaign that helped her atone for any hard feelings she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, may have left behind here after a bitter fight with Obama eight years ago.
“I certainly think the mindset was: ‘I'm not taking South Carolina for granted,’ ” former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges said of Clinton, noting the time she and her husband have spent campaigning in the state over the past month.
“She wanted to communicate to voters, particularly African-American voters, that she was going to work hard to win their support.”
Clinton drew on deep S.C. ties
Clinton had a sizable advantage heading into the race, not the least of which was her name.
The Clintons were popular in South Carolina when they were in the White House, in part because “people in communities of color felt comfortable and felt that there was an ally in the White House,” Cobb-Hunter said.
But Hillary Clinton’s connection to the state dates back to the 1970s, when the recent law-school graduate came to South Carolina to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, founded by Bennettsville-native Marian Wright Edelman.
Since the 1990s, she and her husband also have repeatedly visited the state.
Then-President Clinton visited rural, predominantly black communities after a spate of church burnings, which helped build “good will and gave weight to the notion that he cares,” Cobb-Hunter said.
“People were saying, ‘What in the world was going on?’ ” Cobb-Hunter said. “It mattered to the most powerful person in the world that this is happening.”
The Clintons also are regulars at Renaissance Weekend, a nonpartisan annual gathering in the Lowcountry of notables from diverging backgrounds and opinions on everything from civics, politics or academia, to the arts, science or business.
The beach and friends also drew the Clintons to the state, said Phil Lader of Charleston, the founder of Renaissance and a former Clinton administration official.
“Wherever Hillary goes and gets to know people personally, she builds very strong, lasting friendships and people discover how genuine and funny and committed she is,” Lader said.
“There is a considerable number of Americans, including many South Carolinians, who may not agree with her on every policy position, but trust her, have confidence in her and would like to see her serve as president,” he added.
Since losing the 2008 nomination to Obama, Hillary Clinton has been working toward another run. She immediately went to work for newly minted President Obama as his secretary of state.
And in 2012, Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention, re-energizing the party and Obama’s campaign at a time when the president was being assailed by White House-hungry Republicans.
Building Clinton’s ‘firewall’
Counting on South Carolina to be her firewall against potential losses in earlier contests in less diverse states, Clinton took calculated steps to lock down support, especially among African-American voters who cast more than half the ballots in the S.C. primary.
The candidate fully embraced Obama’s legacy, pitching to S.C. Democratic voters that she was the candidate best suited to protect the president’s work and improve upon it.
A rolling list of endorsements from more than two dozen state legislators and 80 local elected officials helped maintain momentum as more than 50 surrogates – including Hollywood stars and high-powered politicians – hit the trail for Clinton. The campaign also targeted outreach at its strongest supporters.
Courting older African-American voters, the campaigned reached out to barber shops, beauty parlors and churches, asking them to help with get-out-the-vote efforts.
Sanders tried to compete with Clinton for younger black voters, visiting historically black colleges several times, including Allen University and Benedict College, two private, historically black schools in Columbia.
But Clinton’s campaign also made black colleges a priority – perhaps more effectively than Sanders.
For example, S.C. State student Aaliyah Loadholt, a Sanders supporter, noted Sanders visited that Orangeburg college in November. But most of the college’s students had left campus for Thanksgiving.
By then, she added, “The Hillary people (had) been here for a while,” lining up support. “The college Democrats, they’re for Hillary. His presence wasn’t here until the race got closer.”
The Clinton of 2016 also was a better candidate than eight years earlier.
In 2008, Clinton was “very guarded, very closed off,” said Amanda Loveday, who covered that primary as a reporter and, later, ran the state Democratic Party.
This time, Clinton has more smaller events, “where people feel like they can get to know her,” said Loveday.
In 2008, “Barack Obama ... if he had to stand in line for a couple of hours and shake hands, that's what he did,” she said. “I've seen (Clinton) do more of that this cycle. ... The more selfies an average voter sees on their Facebook news feed, the better they feel about a candidate.”
Winning over opponents, critics
Clinton’s outreach extended beyond African-American voters.
Courting party elite, Clinton secured backing from Clyburn; former S.C. Govs. Hodges and Dick Riley, who was U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton; and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, one of the nation’s longest-serving mayors.
She also brought into her fold the former supporters of Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
After Biden said he would not run, Clinton spoke with former Obama administration official and former S.C. schools superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. After the talk, Tenenbaum, who had planned to back Biden, endorsed Clinton.
Former state Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, had backed O’Malley, lobbing attacks at Clinton in an attempt to gain an edge for his candidate. But after O’Malley dropped out, Brown – a Democratic convention superdelegate – pledged his support to Clinton, saying he’d had a change of heart.
The choice between Clinton and Sanders was clear, he said.
“I can make a rash decision and support a guy who excites a lot of people, or I can vote for somebody who is presidential material, someone who is pragmatic, can keep us safe at home and around the world,” said Brown, now a Columbia real-estate consultant.
“That person is Hillary Clinton.”
‘Different because she was here’
At times, tragedy gave Clinton ways to connect with S.C. voters.
In April, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston police officer. Two months later, nine African-Americans were slain during a Bible study at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Clinton was effective in harnessing those moments to connect with S.C. voters, said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston.
Clinton attended the funeral of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Mother Emanuel’s pastor who was killed in the church massacre.
She also showed she had her eye on South Carolina issues and used her national profile to elevate the discussion of them. That “made all the difference” for Kimpson, who endorsed Clinton after being asked by both campaigns for his support.
“Not only did she worship with us ... she echoed a growing chorus of elected officials concerned about gun violence in this nation that has risen to a level of public epidemic and crisis,” said Kimpson.
Before the church shooting, Kimpson said Clinton’s campaign reached out to him before his proposed statewide police body-camera bill came up for a vote in the S.C. Senate.
“They wanted me to review her comments” on body cameras, he said. “They were well aware we had a bill pending. I chose, tactically, not to read her comments to the floor because I did not want to polarize the issue.”
But, he added, “her comments were helpful to me.”
Sanders, too, addressed the Mother Emanuel massacre and Scott’s death in speeches and on the stump. In January, he attended a Sunday service at Mother Emanuel, hours before the Democratic presidential candidates debated, just blocks from the church.
But Kimpson said Clinton’s interactions were more meaningful.
“It’s different because she was here,” he said of Clinton attending Pinckney’s funeral.
“It’s one thing to mention it. But you haven’t been here to witness the extreme pain and emotional grief that was being suffered by the district,” he said of Sanders.
Meanwhile, Sanders accused Clinton of pandering to African-American voters by embracing Obama.
Clinton’s S.C. allies responded the charge was unfair.
“Who was she pandering to back then in the 1970s, when she was down here around the time before Barack Obama was a teenager?” Clyburn asked during a conference call with reporters last week, referring to Clinton’s work in South Carolina with the Children’s Defense Fund. “She certainly wasn’t pandering to Obama, or anyone else for that matter.
“I understand political rhetoric. I’ve engaged in it myself. But that account doesn’t hold water.”
Some AME pastors in the Pee Dee and the Lowcountry also said Clinton’s outreach was more effective.
The Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of 33 AME churches, said he “talked to a couple of (Sanders’) folks.” But, he added, Sanders’ campaign did not generate “the kind of excitement that he’s generated outside the African-American community.”
Clinton, on the other hand, “spoke for the Charleston NAACP dinner,” Darby said. “We had a nice chat. We got to sit together.”
Not long after, Clinton followed up with a letter, he added.
Hodges, the last Democratic governor of South Carolina, said Clinton called him two days after the Emanuel church shooting to ask him how he was doing and if she could be of help.
Hodges already was a Clinton supporter. But, he said, the gesture was meaningful and typical of how Clinton operates.
“Great candidates and great political leaders make their supporters feel like they're part of the team,” he said. “They don't make them feel like they're sitting in the stands watching.”
3 keys to Hillary Clinton’s S.C. victory
How the former secretary of state won the S.C. primary:
1. Embraced Barack Obama. Clinton embraced the president’s legacy and vowed to protect and improve upon it, a strategy that resonated with the state’s African-American voters, who cast half the ballots in Saturday’s race. Having worked for Obama as secretary of state also aligned Clinton with the president, hugely popular among S.C. Democrats.
2. Took no votes for granted. Early on in her campaign, Clinton’s aides said repeatedly the candidate would not take any votes for granted. Her S.C. campaign aggressively targeted potential supporters and called upon them to encourage their backing. Even though Clinton is in a dozen contests in other states next week on Super Tuesday, she kept her focus on South Carolina, campaigning in the state for five days straight, including Saturday.
3. Won African-American and older voters. Sanders was popular among white S.C. Democrats, but African-American and older voters favored Clinton heavily. To make sure they voted, Clinton’s campaign reached out to churches and asked pastors to commit – on paper – to encourage their congregations to vote. The campaign also identified older voters and encouraged them to vote absentee.