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Clinton handily wins South Carolina as candidates seek to win young black voters

Clinton strong among African-American voters, cruises to S.C. win. But many young black voters back Sanders.

Fatima Dicko appreciates the relationship the Clintons have long maintained with African-American voters and the significance of putting a woman in the White House for the first time.

But she's still going to vote for Bernie Sanders.

"I feel Hillary's attempt to consolidate the black vote is a bit inauthentic," said Dicko, 25, a chemical engineer from Baltimore.

But Bilal Ali, a 63-year-old production company owner and WEAA radio co-host, thinks young voters who are supporting Sanders have been "hoodwinked."

"He's too far to the left to be elected," the West Hills man said.

After weeks of outreach by both campaigns to black voters, Clinton handily won the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday. African-Americans make up roughly half the electorate in the Palmetto State.

The victory is a show of strength heading into Super Tuesday this week, which features several states with a large share of black voters, among them Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

But Sanders, the self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont, has developed a following among younger African-Americans. And after weeks of hearing the messages from both campaigns, a constituency that helped fuel Barack Obama's victory in 2008 remains a potential weak spot for Clinton.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary showed Clinton leading by 47 percentage points among black voters in the state. That lead shrank to 17 points among black voters under age 45.

Candace McCray, a 24-year-old Baltimore County voter, puts it bluntly.

"Hillary, to me, she's all about the lights, camera, action," McCray said. "When I look at Bernie Sanders, it seems like he's been down for the cause for black people since the beginning of time."

John Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University, sees a generation gap.

"The policy positions that Bernie Sanders is taking — those kinds of things are really more attractive to younger voters who maybe aren't as connected to the Clinton legacy," he said. "There is this conversation happening, and it's particularly germane to African-Americans."

Though Maryland's late-in-the-cycle April 26 primary makes it an afterthought, it is also a state with a significant black vote that holds influence over statewide politics. Though estimates vary, black voters made up about 40 percent of the Democratic primary turnout in Maryland for Obama's first presidential run in 2008.

The most recent presidential poll in Maryland that included racial breakdowns showed that Clinton enjoys a 10-to-1 advantage among likely African-American voters in the state. The survey, conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies in January, did not delineate racial categories by age.

Maryland, meanwhile, has produced a number of prominent black surrogates for both campaigns. Benjamin Jealous, 43, a former leader of the NAACP and the first of his generation to lead the civil rights organization, backed Sanders this month and has been campaigning with him in South Carolina.

William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., 72, the Baltimore attorney who represents the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black male who suffered a fatal spinal injury in police custody in April, has been stumping for Clinton. Kweisi Mfume, 67, the former Maryland congressman and NAACP leader, endorsed Clinton on Monday.

"I know Hillary, and I know she understands our struggles firsthand," Mfume said in an interview.

But what about younger voters? A 20-year-old heading to the polls this year was in kindergarten when the Clinton family left the White House and a toddler when writer Toni Morrison described Bill Clinton as "our first black president."

But that voter might be old enough to remember the rocky relationship between the Clintons and Obama leading into the South Carolina primary eight years ago, when Bill Clinton at one point referred to Obama's efforts to claim differences between his record and Hillary Clinton's as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Bill Clinton later appeared to write off Obama's win in the state by noting that another African-American, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, won there in 1984 and 1988 without clinching the nomination.

Mfume said he doubts that any of that matters. He pointed instead to a youthful trait that transcends race.

"There is a sense of idealism, a sense among some young people that 'I will make up my own mind — you won't tell me what to do,'" Mfume said. "I think some of that is playing out there."

Maurice Simpson, a 26-year-old law student and president of the Prince George's County Young Democrats, said he distinctly remembers his parents having it better during the Clinton years than in the economy that followed under President George W. Bush.

Simpson is not only supporting Clinton, he's running as a convention delegate for her.

"I think we understand that under the Clinton economy our parents fared better and so we fared better," he said.

Eight in 10 African-Americans associate with the Democratic Party, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report — the most pronounced alliance of any demographic group with a party that was studied.

Republicans have made some effort to reach out to black voters, but if opinion polls are any indication, it has not been particularly effective. More than 80 percent of African-Americans support Clinton over Republican front-runner Donald Trump, several surveys have shown.

And that is why both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have worked hard to attract African-American voters in South Carolina — swinging through predominantly black churches and speaking at community centers in black neighborhoods. The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland — whose deaths sparked a national discussion about racism — have also been campaigning for Clinton in the state.

Sanders is the only current candidate — aside from Republican Ben Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon — who visited Baltimore to talk with black leaders here about Gray's death last spring and the riots that followed.

He won praise from many for walking through Sandtown-Winchester in December, past the corner where Gray was arrested, and the CVS drugstore that burned in the riots.

But he rubbed others the wrong way by later comparing West Baltimore to a "Third World country."

Dicko did not take a direct or easy route to supporting Sanders. She said she is skeptical of both candidates, and said it was not until Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a Sanders campaign event in Seattle last summer that he began to really address issues important to the black community. She praised Clinton for the relationships she has built with many black leaders.

"It is on the African-American community to continue to advance these issues as we have so we know our vote delivers a return on investment," she said.

For some, the criticism of Clinton is more about personality than policy.

"Hillary just really throws me off," said Bijan Glenn, a 25-year-old Baltimore woman who attended a mayoral candidates forum in Rosebank last week. "I just don't feel like she's ..."

"Relatable," a friend said, finishing Glenn's sentence, and prompting a nod.

"She just seems so far from the people," Glenn added.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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