Will black voters give Hillary Clinton a second chance?

Updated 7:14 AM EDT, Wed May 27, 2015

Story highlights

Hillary Clinton will be in South Carolina for the first time since she announced 2016 campaign

Clinton was damaged after a racially charged South Carolina battle against Obama in 2008

(CNN) —  

Hillary Clinton’s road to redemption among black voters begins Wednesday in South Carolina.

Rita Outen remembers everything that happened here the last time Clinton made her case for the presidency, slogging through a bitter and racially charged primary contest against Barack Obama in 2008.

Standing in the aisle of Reid Chapel A.M.E. church one recent afternoon, the retired nurse ticked off the lowlights: the “Jesse Jackson thing,” when Bill Clinton seemed to dismiss Obama’s victory in the state by noting the reverend won South Carolina twice without making it to the White House. And the time when Hillary Clinton accused Obama of working closely with a slumlord.

“There was also that fairy tale comment,” Outen said, recalling yet another Bill Clinton gaffe from the campaign that was interpreted as an effort to diminish the man who would become the first African-American president.

Obama routed Clinton 55% to 27% in the 2008 primary, when she won just one of South Carolina’s 46 counties – a drubbing that sparked shouting matches between old friends and fears of a permanently fractured party. It left many African-Americans feeling disenchanted about the Clintons, a political couple adored by many minorities during their years in the White House.

Southern test

The Southern test for Clinton now centers on whether she can move past the wounds of that campaign. In the past few months, Clinton’s team has moved aggressively – if quietly at times – to heal lingering damage from 2008 and solidify black support in early states and among prominent African-Americans.

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For now, Clinton is enjoying some goodwill. Outen, for instance, voted for Obama in 2008 and despite what she called the “nastiness” of that race, she now says she’s a Hillary Clinton supporter.

“When you run for political office, everybody makes statements you shouldn’t make and some of the statements back then were derogatory,” recalled Outen. “At first, my support was a little wavering, but you get over it. She now has a chance to redeem herself.”

Shortly after Clinton lost in 2008, Rep. Jim Clyburn got an angry phone call from Bill Clinton, who blamed him for the defeat in part because he didn’t endorse the former first lady. Seven years later, tensions have calmed and the divisions that were feared haven’t come to pass, Clyburn said.

“Emotionally, people are attached to Hillary Clinton on many different levels,” said Clyburn, who is the highest ranking African-American in Congress. “There are people who want to see the glass ceiling smashed and there are people who want to see our party lay out a progressive agenda.”

Clinton is set to deliver the keynote address to the South Carolina House Democratic Women’s Caucus and the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council. But the event that will most recall Clinton’s 2008 challenges – and her 2016 opportunities – will come when she sits down with a group of minority women who own small businesses.


“This is Hillary Clinton’s reintroduction to African-American voters,” said former state representative Bakari Sellers, who co-chaired Obama’s 2008 state steering committee and now backs Clinton. “I don’t care how you couch it. It just is.”

There is some skepticism about her ability to turn out African-Americans at the same rate as Obama. Former state party head, Dick Harpootlian, a Biden supporter who was one of Obama’s earliest supporters and frequent Clinton antagonist in 2008, looks at the base and sees the same type of challenge for Clinton as she faced in 2008.

“I see no enthusiasm among rank and file Democrats for Hillary Clinton and there are still some harsh feelings about what happened in 2008,” Harpootlian said. “People have come up to me saying we remember ‘08, who are you for and is Biden going to get in.”

Biden will likely stay on the sidelines as long as Clinton remains in the race. By the time primary day rolls around, Clinton will have company – Bernie Sanders has already announced and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is likely to announce his candidacy this week.

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While Sanders recently electrified a state party gathering with his populist rhetoric, the Vermont senator does not have deep ties to African-Americans. And O’Malley, former Mayor of Baltimore, could be hurt as much as he is helped by his tough on crime tenure in light of the recent unrest in that city.