Bernie Sanders Intrigues a South Carolina Town That is Loyal to Hillary Clinton

Reginald Abraham, left, a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with Henry Jenkins, a barbershop owner in Orangeburg, S.C. (Logan R. Cyrus for The New York Times)
Reginald Abraham, left, a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with Henry Jenkins, a barbershop owner in Orangeburg, S.C. (Logan R. Cyrus for The New York Times)

When Helen Duley was asked whom she would be voting for in the South Carolina primary, she answered as if the very question were absurd.

“What I’m seeing is a bunch of confusion, hearsay and foolishness,” said Ms. Duley, 60, a retired nursing assistant who is African-American, shortly after finishing breakfast here at the downtown McDonald’s. “What I also see is a veteran who’s already been in the White House eight years. A veteran: Hillary Clinton.”

But that was late January. Interviewed again on Tuesday as Mrs. Clinton’s rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was surging toward an overwhelming victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Ms. Duley found herself suddenly intrigued by a candidate she barely knew. “It makes me feel good,” she said, chuckling, “that young people are listening to the elderly people.” Ms. Duley now said she was an undecided voter and planned to do some homework on Mr. Sanders, despite respect for Mrs. Clinton that spans nearly a quarter-century.

Mrs. Clinton has long looked forward to the Feb. 27 Democratic contest in South Carolina, the first state where blacks will make up a dominant part of the primary vote. African-Americans accounted for more than half of the voters in the 2008 Democratic primary, and she has been counting on them as a bulwark, not just in South Carolina but also in the so-called SEC primary in six Southern states on March 1.

But interviews with black voters like Ms. Duley reflect both enormous stores of good will and name recognition that have given Mrs. Clinton an early advantage in this state and a growing awareness that there is an alternative, one that could prove particularly intriguing for young voters.

Ms. Duley enthusiastically supported the presidency of Mrs. Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1990s, only to abandon Mrs. Clinton in 2008 in her Democratic primary bid against Barack Obama. It was a chance, Ms. Duley said, to make history and elect the nation’s first black president. But Ms. Duley said she had never lost her fondness for Mrs. Clinton.

“I thought she would have made a good president back then, had he not come along,” she said.

It is a common theme.

“In ’08, we wanted the barrier broken, but it wasn’t a vote against Hillary,” said Michael Butler, a pastor of a Pentecostal church who became the first black mayor of this small city in 2013, five years after Mr. Obama became the first African-American to win the presidency. “We liked her. We loved her.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released late last month showed Mrs. Clinton with a 64 percent to 27 percent lead over Mr. Sanders among likely voters in the South Carolina primary. Among likely black voters, her lead was 74 percent to 17 percent.

Respect for the Clinton brand is easy to find in Orangeburg County, a majority-black swath of former plantation land notable for a pair of historically black colleges, a towering monument to the Confederate dead, stultifying poverty and a rich trove of Democratic votes.

Inside Mr. Butler’s church, the Victory Tabernacle Deliverance Temple of the Apostolic Faith, a large photograph of Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, hangs in the hallway. But Mr. Butler said there was also room for the Clintons in the firmament of Democratic political heroes. “To me, they were like the Kennedys,” he said.

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The New York Times