On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, competing for African American voters in South Carolina, released a new radio ad featuring film director and actor Spike Lee enthusiastically talking up the record of "my brother Bernie Sanders" in fighting racism.
"When Bernie gets in the White House, he will do the right thing!" Lee says in the spot, a nod to the movie that made him famous. "How can we be sure?" he continues. "Bernie was at the March on Washington with Dr. King. He was arrested in Chicago for protesting segregation in public schools. He fought for wealth and education and inequality throughout his whole career. No flipping, no flopping. Enough talk. Time for action."
The high-energy Spike Lee ad is one of many in the ongoing ad war between Sanders and front-runner Hillary Clinton. Last week, Republican candidates blanketed the Palmetto State with ads that amounted to a million-dollar circular firing squad. The ad blitzes from Sanders and Clinton—primarily targeting hip-hop, gospel, and R&B radio stations—zero in on serious topics: police violence, mass incarceration, and inequality.
The ads in South Carolina, where more than half the Democratic electorate is black, were always going to be a little different than the ads in uber-white New Hampshire. But listen to an hour or two of drive-time radio, and it becomes clear how different the battle lines in South Carolina are from those in the three states that voted before it—and how the work of civil rights activists over the last few years has changed the dynamics of the 2016 race.
"I was one of the leaders in the House to take charge and say the [Confederate] flag has to come down now," says Rep. Justin Bamberg, an African American Democrat in a Sanders ad, explaining why he switched from Clinton to the Vermont senator. "He has stood for civil rights his entire life. He marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King. Bernie Sanders will be the advocate to address the problems in the criminal justice system."
Another Sanders spot features four African American activists from South Carolina, of varying ages, outlining why they back the self-described democratic socialist. "Bernie Sanders realizes that mass incarceration, especially among young people, is a rising epidemic," says Hamilton Grant. Gloria Bomell Tinubu remarks, "We know that prison is big business; it's been privatized. And Bryanta-Booker Maxwell says of Sanders, "He is the best champion for criminal justice reform."
In another radio ad, Sanders, touting his plan to fight "institutional racism," makes a direct pitch for himself: "Millions of lives are being wrecked, families are being torn apart, we're spending huge sums of taxpayer money locking people up. It makes a lot more sense for us to be investing in education, in jobs, rather than jails and incarceration."
Pro-Clinton ads hit similar points, but with three big additions: Obama, Obama, Obama. That is, as these ads depict Clinton as a pursuer of justice and equality, they hammer home her connection to the president.
"We all worked hard to elect President Barack Obama eight years ago," a woman narrator says at the beginning of a heavily played ad aired by Priorities USA, a Clinton-backing super-PAC. "Republicans have tried to tear him down every step of the way. We can't let them hold us back. We need a president who will build on all that President Obama has done. President Obama trusted Hillary Clinton to be America's secretary of state." And the ad turns toward racism at its end: "She'll fight to remove the stains of unfairness and prejudice from our criminal justice system, so that justice is just."
Another spot from the super-PAC cites Clinton's "bold" plan to curb police brutality. And in an ad paid for directly by the Clinton campaign, former Attorney General Eric Holder, emphasizing his and Clinton's ties to Obama, hails her efforts to protect civil rights and voting rights and her support for tougher gun laws and police accountability:
The most direct reference to the Black Lives Matter movement comes in an ad in which Clinton herself says, "African Americans are more likely to be arrested by police and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same thing that whites do. Too many encounters with law enforcement end tragically for African Americans." A narrator cites a young Hillary's work "standing up for African American teenagers locked up with adults in South Carolina jails." Then Clinton adds, "We have to face up to the hard truth of injustice and systemic racism."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Sanders and Clinton's fight for the airwaves is this: For all their heated exchanges on the debate stage, not a single spot goes negative.
This is a different campaign from the one that began last spring.
Tim MurphyFeb. 23, 2016 7:00 AM
Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, campaigns with Hillary Clinton on February 17.
As Hillary Clinton makes her final push in South Carolina ahead of the state's critical Saturday primary, she's getting some help from five African American mothers whose children were victims of gun violence or died in police custody.
The women—Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis; Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland; Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner—spoke to small audiences at three black churches in the first round of a two-day trip that will culminate Tuesday night in a megarally with Clinton in Columbia. They talked emotionally about their faith and their families' trauma, but they were there primarily to deliver a simple message about the Democratic presidential front-runner: You can trust Hillary Clinton.
In Nevada, as in New Hampshire and Iowa before it, Democrats who said "trustworthiness" was an important factor in their vote chose Sanders in overwhelming numbers. Talk to an undecided voter at a rally and there's a better-than-even chance it comes up. "I think there's an underlying question that maybe is really in the back of people's minds, and that is, 'Is she in it for us or is she in it for herself?'" Clinton conceded to CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday.
The five mothers were there to ease those concerns, while talking up the former secretary of state's plans for gun control and criminal justice reform.
"We haven't been prompted or prodded to say this," Reed-Veal, whose daughter died in a Texas jail after being pulled over for not signaling a turn, told the 30 or so voters crammed into a side room of Lonely Hill Baptist Church in Holly Hill. "These are all things that each of us felt—a genuineness. She listened and followed through for us. You can't fake that."
They all described an intensive courtship by the Clinton campaign that began quietly, through back channels and outside the glare of the national media. Hamilton got her first meeting with Clinton after she promised on Facebook to shut down a Clinton rally with a protest in Milwaukee last spring. When the two met, they hugged for three minutes, and Hamilton cried on Clinton's shoulder. Reed-Veal met Clinton at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. "She walked up, held my hand, and she said, 'What is it that you want?'" Reed-Veal recalled. She got a personal letter from Clinton afterward. Then she got a second letter, inviting her to a Democratic debate. After a Texas grand jury decided not to indict anyone for her daughter's death, she got a third letter from Clinton.
Clinton sealed the deal, they explained, when she met with the five of them last fall in a conference room in Chicago. It was a low-key affair. The candidates' staffers shooed reporters from the room before it began, and Clinton showed up with a notepad to jot down what she heard. They were told they had 30 minutes; the meeting lasted for two hours. "She knew which cases went to jail," Fulton said, when she told the story at the second stop of the day, a church in Sumter. "She knew specifically what happened in our tragedies. She knew that information and she knew because she cares. She cares. Not only does she care about victims of gun violence but she cares about women, she cares about African Americans. She cares!"
"We sat there and collaborated with her and her staffers," Reed-Veal recalled, sounding a little awed. "Our concerns are implemented in her policy. God is good! He was in the room. The Lord was was in the room! And Hillary was that mother, that grandmother, that sister."
That such an event happened at all is a testament to how far the Democratic landscape has shifted not just from 2008—when the Clintons cast doubts on the electability of Hillary Clinton's African American opponent ahead of the South Carolina primary and boasted of the then-New York senator's unique strength with white voters—but from the launch of the campaigns last spring. Neither Clinton nor Sanders talked about police violence, incarceration, or gun control in their announcement speeches last spring. It simply wasn't something Democratic presidential candidates felt they needed to talk about. But as they hit the home stretch in South Carolina, it has become a cornerstone of their platforms.
Sanders' radio ads in the state, like Clinton's, emphasize his position on incarceration and systemic racism. The head of Columbia's Black Lives Matter organization is a member of Sanders' state leadership team, and the Vermont senator campaigned in Greenville on Sunday night with Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP. Most notably for the purposes of Clinton's surrogates, Eric Garner's daughter Erica narrated a campaign ad for Sanders.
"I haven't tried to persuade her because you know how young people are—sometimes they get fed something and they believe it," Carr told the audience when she was asked about her granddaughter, eliciting a few laughs. "I'd say, 'Do your research.' That's all I can say: Do your research. I don't want her to think I'm the bad person because I want to try to persuade you to come my way, or, 'Oh, my grandmother don't know, she's from old school.' Do your research and then make your decision; don't make your decision because your friends or your peers are doing this."
Although Clinton does not make her faith a major part of her campaign, Monday's forums had a distinctly religious flair. The five mothers prayed together in the parking lot before speaking in Holly Hill, and when it was over, they joined hands in prayer again. There were no campaign signs at either of the first two forums; instead, the women spoke against the backdrop of a painting of the Last Supper. Reed-Veal invoked the biblical trials of Job—who lost 10 children in one day—and expressed her hope that their movement might just save an atheist or two. McBath said she'd had a spiritual awakening after the death of her son. "My child has been a martyr for this cause so that we can turn our faces back to God," she said, "because we've turned away from God, and that is the reason why we’re seeing what's happening in this country."
The most emotional responses on Monday came not from the mothers, who have relived their stories over and over again for months and months, but from members of the audience. When it came time for questions in Sumter, the only white man in the room stood up and began to choke up. One of the mothers handed him a tissue. "This is what you all have done—you've moved people," he said. "We thank you and we love you, and welcome to our community. Thank you for the hope that you bring. And I hope that we can do whatever we can do to make it right."
"Vote for Hillary, man!" one of the mothers said.
He stood up, hugged Fulton and Carr, and walked out.
Like it or not, Donald Trump is in the driver's seat for the Republican presidential nomination.
The networks called the South Carolina primary for Trump shortly after polls closed on Saturday, with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida locked in a battle for second place. Over the last week of the campaign, Trump's opponents worked hard to spin anything less than an overwhelming victory as a disappointing showing for the billionaire real estate mogul, but make no mistake about it: Trump's win is a big deal. He has now finished second, first, and first in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three states that have very little in common. He has won the latter two by overwhelming pluralities. And he has history on his side: Only one candidate has ever lost South Carolina and won the nomination, and that candidate, Mitt Romney, finished in second in 2012. If his name were anything other than "Donald Trump," the party's leaders would be penciling him in for the final speaking spot at their convention in Cleveland.
Trump used South Carolina as a backdrop for some of his most overheated pronouncements. He promoted his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States while speaking aboard a decommissioned aircraft carrier in Charleston Harbor. He called Pope Francis "disgraceful" for questioning his proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border. And in his final event of the primary campaign on Friday night, he told the audience an apocryphal story about General John Pershing executing 49 Muslims with bullets coated in pig blood. His biggest argument against Cruz's candidacy was that the senator was unnecessarily squeamish about torture. Shortly after polls opened on Saturday, Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama would likely have attended Antonin Scalia's funeral if it had been held at a mosque. Opponents, notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, sought to cast Trump as boorish and unpresidential. They misunderstood the race.
Trump didn't win in spite of being a boor, a bigot, and an analog internet troll; he won because he was proudly all those things. For all the diversions (who picks a fight with the pope, anyway?), he articulated a remarkably clear theory of politics: Other people are screwing you over, and I'm going to stop it. "He's got balls," Julia Coates, a longtime Trump fan, told me as we waited for the real estate magnate to take the stage in North Charleston. "He's got big ones. And that's what we need. I'm tired of all this shit going on." It's the kind of approach that plays poorly among the genteel Southerners who crowd into Low Country town halls in boat shoes and Nantucket red. But he recognized the electorate as something greater—and angrier. If you hadn't voted in decades, Trump was your guy. If you felt betrayed by the people you had voted for, Trump was also your guy.
If Trump was a winner, then everyone else is (to use his term of choice) a loser—including Rubio, who finished third in Iowa and a disappointing fifth in New Hampshire. Now you can add the South to the list of regions that have been less than receptive to his pitch. It's not because he didn't make his message clear. Over the last week, he cast himself as the anti-Trump, a fresh-faced Cuban American who could lead the party into the future. He toured the state with rising star Rep. Trey Gowdy; the state's African America senator, Tim Scott; and its Indian American governor, Nikki Haley, who joked that the quartet looked like a "Benetton commercial." Rubio bet the house on the idea that South Carolina was ready for the future and mentioned the Republican front-runner only in passing during his speeches, and never by name. Trump stuck with the past; he went all-in on white identity politics and, like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush before him, came through unscathed—two divorces be damned.
In actual terms, the biggest loser was Bush, whose campaign is on life support after finishing far behind in a state that helped make his brother president 16 years ago. In a last-gasp effort at upping his numbers in South Carolina, he brought George W.—who was kept at arm's length for most of the campaign—to North Charleston for a megarally where they chest-bumped backstage. And he blanketed the radio airwaves with an endorsement from the ex-president. Jeb pushed hard to position himself as a commander in chief in a state with one of the highest percentages of military families in the nation.
But even his supporters seemed to recognize the end was near. At a town hall in Summerville, in an open-air pavilion overlooking a golf course (Bush never tried too hard to shake the "country club" label), one questioner after another all but called him a wimp. As the event wrapped up, a voter told the younger Bush that he was a big fan of Dubya but questioned whether Jeb had the toughness for the job. "Can you be a sonofabitch?" he asked. Jeb didn't say yes.
From here, the Republican field moves on to Nevada and then Super Tuesday, on March 1. Thanks to the efforts of a Southern bloc, that historic bellwether will be loaded up with states that look about as friendly to Trump as South Carolina did. (Not that he needs to drop his g's to win votes—he cleaned up in New Hampshire, too.) There's also a lot of time for him to screw it up, although short of lighting an American flag on fire in Times Square, it's not clear what that would even look like. The more likely scenario is that his opponents and their backers might finally spend real money attacking him on the airways—just $9 million of the $215 million spent by conservative super-PACs this cycle has been on anti-Trump ads. But don't let Trump's army of Republican critics say South Carolina doesn't matter. They've been saying for years and years that it does. And they're absolutely right.
I was supposed to be writing a wrap-up piece about the South Carolina Republican primary this afternoon, but an attack of writers' block led me to more inspiring territory: the compilation of the (mostly) complete music playlists of every candidate I've seen speak over the last two weeks, in New Hampshire and now South Carolina. Shazam: It's every political reporter's best friend.
This list is incomplete, and can change a lot depending on the candidate's audience or the whims of the artist (heaven forbid Rachel Platten decides to endorse Bernie Sanders). I don't ascribe any deeper meaning to these musical selections either, although suffice it to say there is a pretty big difference between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and for that matter, between Donald Trump and everyone else.
When Bernie Sanders was a 21-year-old University of Chicago undergrad, he was arrested for resisting arrest at a 1963 anti-segregation protest on the South Side. As we've reported, the Vermont senator was a civil rights activist in college, leading his campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in sit-ins on and off campus. He also attended the 1963 March on Washington. Now, the Chicago Tribune has unearthed a photo of the young presidential candidate being hauled away by police that same year.