Hillary Clinton’s win in the South Carolina Democratic primary was a blowout, and black voters in particular are being credited with handing her that victory. More than 8 in 10 black voters in that state voted for Clinton, according to exit polls. If that trend holds, she could have a great day on Super Tuesday, when several states in her Southern “firewall” — several of which have substantial black populations — will vote.
There are a lot of reasons for her strength with this demographic: her name recognition, her record and her politics, for example. But it’s not just her; the Clintons are simply popular among African-Americans.
It’s true that Bill Clinton enjoyed heavy support from the black community in the 1990s. But as Hillary Clinton seeks the nomination herself, some are raising questions about just how good the Clinton presidency was for black Americans — not to mention whether Hillary Clinton should get any credit (or, alternatively, blame) for her husband’s legacy.
Why Black Voters Loved Bill
In fact, history has misunderstood that “first black president” idea, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last year. Author Toni Morrison later said she was trying to talk not about Clinton’s popularity with black voters but his treatment in the public arena, especially following the Monica Lewisnky scandal (“I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp”).
But history has decided that the quote is a compliment — a way to talk about Clinton’s popularity with black voters. And that popularity, at least, is undisputed. In 1992, theNew York Times editorial board, reflecting on the fact that Clinton won 75 percent of the black vote on Super Tuesday, gushed about America’s advances against racism:
“Governor Clinton may or may not go on to win the Democratic nomination, and he may or may not give President Bush a hard run in the fall. But either way, that one figure gives healthy evidence, probably for the first time since Robert Kennedy’s Indiana primary campaign in 1968, that it is politically possible to bring poor blacks and blue-collar white voters together. It is finally possible for Americans to transcend racial division and look instead to mutual interest.”
What drove that popularity? In part, it was regionalism. Clinton did particularly well among Southern African-Americans, and the fact that he was from Arkansas probably helped him.
“Because of his Southern heritage, he appeared to be very, very comfortable in African-American communities,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. That ease, Gillespie said, ranges from his famous sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show to his ease on the campaign trail in interacting with black voters — it “sort of hinted at a certain type of cultural fluency that was welcome to African-American voters,” she added.