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There's a Special Place for Hillary, Too, and It's the South

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The only good news for Hillary Clinton is that this ugly detour into post-feminist finger-pointing was confined mostly to upwardly mobile, predominantly white women on cable news channels and college campuses. Most of the rest of the country is just trying to get by.

And that means that when Clinton campaigns in South Carolina later this week, she and Sanders will find a significantly different group of women likely to vote in that state’s Democratic primary than they found in Iowa and New Hampshire. 
Most of the likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina have never gone to college and never will.  They probably don’t know or care what Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem said last week, or maybe any week, and are too busy trying to make ends meet to have a debate about which women owe what to whom.
Although Sanders dominated Clinton among millennial women in Iowa and New Hampshire, that won’t help him as much in the Palmetto state, where 86 percent of the voters in the 2008 Democratic primary were over 30 years old.  That electorate was also 61 percent female and 55 percent African American.  Sixty-three percent of the state's 2008 Democratic primary voters did not have college degrees, while 53 percent earned less than $50,000 a year.
Jamie Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told me that the key group for both Clinton and Sanders will be African-American women, not just in South Carolina, but across the South and nationally. “That’s the demographic for Hillary and Bernie,” Harrison said. “Bernie doesn’t need to win them, but he needs to cut into her margin. But if she can win convincingly, she’s going to do very, very well here.”
Harrison said the top issues for Democratic voters in South Carolina are the economy, jobs, education and health care. They’re all issues Democrats care about, but are felt intensely among African-American women in South Carolina. Although wealthy counties like Charleston have a 4 percent unemployment rate, that number spikes to close to 10 percent in mostly African American counties like Marion and Orangeburg.
In the state's poor rural counties, schools suffer from high teacher turn-over rates and classrooms that are literally crumbling to the ground.  Health care concerns are intensified by the fact that South Carolina’s governor chose not to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.  That bucket of worries doesn’t leave much room to think about who is or isn’t a feminist in the 21st century.
Sanders isn’t ignoring South Carolina by any measure, but he’s got work to do to catch up to a woman whose relationships in the state go back 30 years or more and is currently polling as much as 30 points ahead of him there. 
Local Democrats tell me both campaigns have spent significant resources there and have extensive organizations, although Clinton’s has been in place many months longer.
Hillary had actresses Angela Bassett and Vivica Fox in town Tuesday to campaign for her, while Bernie had former NAACP President Ben Jealous doing the same.  The Sanders campaign's first event post-New Hampshire will be a “Women for Bernie” meeting in Columbia.
The biggest challenge for Sanders in South Carolina and across the South may be the fact that black voters just don’t know who he is yet, while Clinton is known in two important ways.
As much as she is recognized as a former first lady, she is equally known as Barack Obama’s secretary of state.  The latter is a connection I hear again and again from her female African-American supporters.
“I trust her. I think Barack Obama wouldn’t have put her on his team if he didn’t trust her,” Connie Colton told me at a recent rally for Hillary in Atlanta. Colton sits squarely in the voting block Bernie will need to win over across the South to win the nomination.  She’s African American, “more than 40,” and deeply supportive of Hillary Clinton, but not because of anything Gloria Steinem or Madeline Albright said in New Hampshire or L.A.
“I love Hillary.  I love her class.  She carries herself like a president. When she speaks, she speaks with integrity,” Colton said. “We don’t need anybody who is just for certain people. We need someone who is for everybody, the way President Obama is.”
It’s entirely possible that Clinton could also lose the Nevada caucuses just before South Carolina’s primary on  Feb. 27 .  Sanders' manager recently said he felt their chances in the caucuses are looking good.
Still, better news is likely waiting for Hillary when she goes to the South. She’d probably be wise, however, to leave Steinem and Albright behind for the ride.
 
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter at @1patriciamurphy.

 

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Topics: opinion