Clinton vs. Sanders: A Preview Of South Carolina's Primary

Feb 25, 2016

Clinton volunteers (bottom left) and a Sanders volunteer (top right) make calls for their preferred candidate just before the Democrats primary in South Carolina
Credit Tom Bullock / WFAE News

Darelene Mansfield has this request for her fellow South Carolinians, "Just bear with us, it’s just going to be a few more days. You’re only going to get a few more calls."

Mansfield is behind a number of those calls. She’s the phone bank coordinator at the Clinton campaign’s Rock Hill office. Phone banks tell you a lot about a campaign.

This isn't people dialing their way through the phone book. This is big data’s turf, with information gleaned from public records like voter registration and election participation. And with proprietary information gathered from campaign websites and events. Added into the mix, of course, the latest polls both public and internal.

All this decides whom volunteers call and what they say. Mansfield walks us through the Clinton script. It starts simply enough. "You know, hello my name is, and I’m a volunteer with the Hillary Clinton campaign." They remind voters the primary is this Saturday. Then ask the all important question. "And if they’re a strong supporter or leaning toward Ms. Clinton then we move on to commit to vote."

That’s where the volunteer becomes part planner – when do you plan to vote? In the morning, afternoon or evening? And part concierge, helping them find a ride to their precinct if needed. And if they find a Bernie Sanders supporter on the other end of the line? Often, says Mansfield, "We just thank them for their time and have a great day."

At a rival phone bank not too far away, the approach is very different. "I try to find out how much knowledge they have about Senator Sanders. Whether they’re interested in finding out a little bit more." That’s Bobbie Harrison, a volunteer caller with the Sanders campaign. She tries to tailor her conversation based on who she’s calling. Say, it’s a person under 65 and she reaches them during the day. To Harrison, that’s a cue they may be unemployed or underemployed. "So I try to talk to them about trying to raise the minimum wage and health care benefits for all."

These different approaches – introductions vs logistics – are indicative of where Sanders and Clinton campaigns stand. Bernie is still something of an unknown. That’s not the case for Hillary. "The Clinton’s are very well known within South Carolina," says Karen Kedrowski, political scientist and dean at Winthrop University, "and I think largely seen in a positive way."

Real Clear Politics poll of South Carolina polls currently has Clinton ahead by 24 points. For Sanders to have a chance in the state, and in other states with high African-American populations, Kedrowksi says he needs to broaden his appeal specifically with African-American women. "Women are more likely to vote and more likely to be registered than their male counterparts." This differential, she adds, is exacerbated somewhat in the African-American community nationwide "because of the heavier incarceration rates of men of color." Political Scientist Adolphus Belk agrees. "African-American women constitute the most loyal segment of the Democratic base in the country. That they are the most reliable supporters of Democratic candidates in presidential elections."

African-American voters aren’t single issue voting block says Belk. "Their policy preferences tend to skew liberal. They tend to think government ought to be more involved in doing certain things, in particular the federal level of government because often times state and local government has been their tormentors."

And that is one area where Belk sees the potential for Bernie Sanders to gain ground. Take mass incarceration rates, something a hoarse former President Bill Clinton brought up on a Thursday visit to Rock Hill where he was stumping for his wife. "We need prison reform," the former president told the crowd. "America has by far the highest percentage of its people in prison of any country. Most of them didn’t do anything violent."

Belk notes that’s a change from what candidate Bill Clinton proposed when first running for president when, "Bill Clinton said Republicans can say a lot about me, they can’t say I’m soft on crime." That stance lead to the 1994 crime act, which Belk says, "created 60 new offenses that were punishable by the federal death penalty, offered money to the states if they either expand their prison capacity or to build new prisons." And it implemented a federal three strikes rule, all things that increased the country’s prison population.

These were all done by Bill Clinton, not Hillary. But Belk thinks it still could sway some black voters to move to Sanders' camp. But right now, South Carolina is looking like Hillary country.