When the Bernie Sanders-aligned Nurses on the Bus vehicle rolled onto the campus of South Carolina State University recently, Aaliyah Loadholt bolted from the cafeteria to greet it.
“They were right outside the cafeteria, and they were, like, ‘Do you like Bernie?’ ” said Loadholt, a 20-year-old social work major from the tiny town of Estill, S.C. “I was, like, ‘I love Bernie.’ ”
Seeking to cut into former Secretary of State’s Hillary Clinton’s formidable support among South Carolina’s African-American voters, Sen. Bernie Sanders is targeting the state’s predominantly black colleges and universities, hoping that students will be receptive to the self-described Democratic socialist’s message ahead of Saturday’s presidential primary.
Sanders addressed students at Columbia’s Allen University last Tuesday, telling them, “I think we’re going to surprise people here.”
Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in New York in 2014 after police used a chokehold to subdue him, accompanied Sanders to Allen and ventured to neighboring Benedict College the next day to speak with students in the campus cafeteria.
HBCUs are part of that millennial nation that’s responding so well to Bernie ... There’s a lot of fear because student debt is very high; job prospects are kind of soft.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a Bernie Sanders supporter
The Nurses on the Bus, staffed by the members of National Nurses United, drove by Allen, Benedict, and South Carolina State, on behalf of Sanders.
Almost at the same time, noted African-American academic and author Cornel West was stumping for Sanders at Spartanburg’s University of South Carolina-Upstate, a 6,000-student campus with an African-American enrollment of 29 percent.
West, a critic of President Barack Obama and some longtime Democratic lawmakers, said in an interview that black college campuses are prime real estate for Sanders because “we’ve got a struggle going on in black America between neo-liberal political elites and populist everyday people.”
“And young people are less likely to be convinced by black neo-liberal elites,” he added.
He said Sanders is looking for “a significant slice of the black vote” in South Carolina to show African-American voters in other primary states that the Vermont senator is a viable and electable candidate.
“So by the time we hit the urban centers in the primaries, a lot of black folks will say, ‘Oh, he’s a winner,’ ” West said in Spartanburg.
But Sanders faces a tough climb in attracting African-American voters, a bloc that accounted for 55 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate eight years ago.
Clinton has a commanding lead over Sanders among likely African-Americans voters in the state - 68 percent compared to Sanders’ 21 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll last week.
Among African-Americans under the age of 45, Clinton outpaced Sanders 52 percent to 35 percent.
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, told The State that Sanders is “making inroads with African-Americans but much more slowly than a lot of his team thought would happen – and certainly more slowly than he needs to win.”
And Clinton’s campaign has no intention of surrendering ground to Sanders, especially on the campuses of more than 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) nationwide where 303,000 students were enrolled in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
I appreciate the fact that a lot of them do ‘Feel the Bern,’ but when I ask them why they can’t tell me.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a Clinton surrogate on young African-American voters
When Sanders visited Atlanta’s Morehouse College last week as part his nationwide HBCU tour, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a Morehouse graduate and Clinton supporter, blasted him in a statement distributed by Clinton’s campaign.
Richmond charged that Sanders’ proposal to make tuition free at public colleges and universities does nothing for private HBCUs such as Morehouse. Nearly half of the country’s HBCUs are private.
In South Carolina, Clinton also launched her own black college voter turnout effort. Former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife at Allen University earlier this month.
Actress Angela Bassett vouched for Clinton at South Carolina State and nearby Claflin University while fellow entertainer Vivica A. Fox spoke at Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., and at Denmark Technical College.
At South Carolina State, students say Clinton’s campaign has been a presence there since April. A campaign aide said the Clinton camp has visited all of the state’s predominantly black college campuses.
Nakea Pennant, a 19-year-old South Carolina State biology major, said Clinton had her support before the campaign set foot on the Orangeburg campus.
“She’s the best person for the job. She’s qualified,” said Pennant, who serves as a campaign phone bank captain in Orangeburg. “Originally, I was an Obama fan in 2008. I’m all Hillary now. She’s experienced through the Bill (Clinton) years, being a senator from New York, and being secretary of state.”
Loadholt says Sanders has some catching up to do at South Carolina State. He spoke there in November, but most students had left campus for Thanksgiving break. West followed up with a visit to the campus last month that produced “a pretty good turnout,” she said.
“The Hillary people have been here for a while,” Loadholt said. “The college Democrats, they’re for Hillary. His presence wasn’t here until the race got closer.”
Still, both Loadholt and Pennant estimate that more than half of the South Carolina State students haven’t decided whom they’re voting for on Saturday.
“They hear a lot of promises and they’re hearing a bunch of what Bernie is about and what Hillary is about,” Loadholt said. “They’re like ‘I like free college but I like Hillary Clinton being a woman and being president, too.’ ”