Rayshun Williams was a solid Hillary Clinton supporter until about halfway through her last debate against Bernie Sanders. That’s when he got into a pitched debate of his own with his friends over which candidate would best help black voters. Now, he said, he’s giving the Vermont senator a second look.
“I wasn’t that big into politics, but then I started learning more,” said Williams, a business major at Morehouse College. “And now I’m looking at supporting him.”
Young African-American voters such as Williams are the prize Sanders and Clinton are now battling over to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton appears to have a hold on older minority voters, but Sanders’ call for free public college tuition, a new federal jobs program and a health care expansion could help him narrow that advantage by winning over black students.
That’s why he was at Morehouse on Tuesday night, before a crowd of more than 4,800 people.
“We started in Georgia way, way, way down, and I think we’re going to win right here,” Sanders told the crowd Tuesday. “And the reason for that is that people understand that our country today faces some enormously serious problems, and they understand that establishment politics and establishment economics just isn’t going to do it.”
So far, polls show Clinton has retained her edge among African-Americans after a razor-thin win in Iowa, followed by a 22-point loss last week in New Hampshire. A CBS News poll published Sunday showed Clinton with a 19-point lead over Sanders among likely Democratic voters, girded by solid support among African-American voters.
But Sanders, too, is avidly courting black support in hopes that his message that the Washington establishment favors rich, moneyed interests can resonate among black voters.
And South Carolina’s vote is the first test of how his message resonates outside of whiter, and more liberal, pockets of voters. How South Carolina votes is generally an indicator of how Democrats in Georgia vote. Only once since 1988 have Democrats in the two states backed opposing candidates — in 2004, when John Edwards won the South Carolina vote and John Kerry topped the Georgia primary.
“If Sanders exceeds expectations (or wins) in South Carolina, then those (black voters) who support Clinton solely because they think she’ll be the eventual nominee or is more electable may think twice about their strategy,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate political science professor at Emory University. “This might be especially true if they find Clinton to be a flawed candidate.”
It helps explain why Sanders’ first event after his New Hampshire win was a breakfast in Harlem with the Rev. Al Sharpton, and why he started Tuesday with a speech to faith leaders in South Carolina with Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP president who has endorsed his campaign.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the Georgia Senate, also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he had flipped his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders, and he introduced the candidate at the rally.
The stop at Morehouse on Tuesday was part of the Sanders campaign’s tour of historically black colleges, and it also featured Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, who has fast become one of his most forceful surrogates in the South.
“If you line up (Martin Luther King Jr.’s) social policy for the poor, downtrodden people of color, people in abject poverty, then line up the policies of all the other candidates,” Killer Mike said Tuesday about Sanders, “there is only one candidate whose policy lines up.”
Clinton, meanwhile, has tried to reinforce her Southern bulwark. She spoke in New York on Tuesday about her agenda to combat “systemic racism” and help black families get more economic development opportunities. And her supporters, including civil rights icon John Lewis, have traveled the nation supporting her campaign.
“We understand that Secretary Clinton is the one who is dedicated to ensuring that women are empowered and that we have the opportunities to move throughout our lives without these issues of inequity,” said Tyra Beaman, a member of the Spelman Students for Hillary group at Spelman College. “What I’m feeling is that students get that. We’re ready for a woman to be president.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed put it more bluntly.
“Stop treating Bernie Sanders like he’s something special,” said Reed, one of Clinton’s top allies in the South. “He’s not going to be the nominee.”
At the Morehouse event, a line of hundreds wrapped around the block three hours before he arrived. Among them was Drekevious Gibbs, a history major from Elberton who switched his support to Sanders in October.
“I feel like Hillary Clinton is trying too hard — she’s trying to act black,” he said. “She’s pandering.”
Lauren Ross, a Spelman student, said she long invested in the Clinton “household name” until she studied Sanders’ positions. Soon, she set about persuading her mother and other relatives to do the same. Every morning, she said, she would take a screen shot of something positive about Sanders that she saw in social media and send it to her clan.
“It wasn’t easy for me to convince them,” she said. “But I did.”
Donique Smith, too, was on the fence, torn between the desire to support the nation’s first female president and the appeal of the disheveled septuagenarian willing to take on the Washington establishment.
“We all know we’re in the African-American mecca in Atlanta. And we are looking for who is actually looking out for us,” Smith said. “And people are beginning to hear him out.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.