SPARTANBURG, S.C. - At the 11 a.m. worship service Sunday at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, the almost exclusively black congregants were asked to pray for the sick, the grieving, the lonely. That’s normal in any church.
But there was also a lengthy prayer for the incarcerated from its pastor, the Rev. Benjamin Snoddy. There was a detailed explanation of how to apply for college scholarships. There was, thanks to Black History Month, an extraordinary speaker in the Rev. Harry Singleton III of Benedict College. He preached that black Christians could not properly understand their faith if they were not educated in how the Bible had historically been distorted by whites to keep them down.
It was a joyous and musical morning of worship and fellowship at a nearly 150-year-old church in a city where blacks are in the majority and 26 percent of residents live below the poverty line. It also was a room where the debate over whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would be better for black Americans seemed to hold little meaning.
Who marched where? Who says #BlackLivesMatter most? Do black voters believe problems in their communities that haven’t gotten better with a black president are going to get better with Clinton or Sanders?
Sanders has gotten more endorsements from blacks than expected, largely because many black intellectuals argue that the Clintons’ legacy is one of incarcerating blacks and shredding welfare to pander to moderate voters. The politically active black people I’ve spoken to in South Carolina are split on whether Sanders or Clinton is the best choice, but they agree neither has created real buzz in their communities.
That’s crucial, because with the Democratic primary to be held here Saturday, the question of how black voters will cast their ballots is probably the wrong question. The big issue is whether they’ll cast ballots at all.
In 2008, Barack Obama swept to victory in the primary here, capturing 55 percent of the vote and crushing Hillary Clinton by 28 percentage points. But the truly unprecedented figure was the number of votes cast: 530,000. That was 81.5 percent higher than the 292,000 cast in 2004.
In 2008, blacks accounted for 55 percent of the primary vote. In 2004, blacks accounted for only 47 percent. So about 286,000 black voters cast ballots in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary that featured Obama. About 137,000 black voters cast ballots in the 2004 primary, which did not.
This year, the race has taken a turn. Clinton, looking to deliver a haymaker blow that leads to a knockout on Super Tuesday, is everywhere, with at least 10 events scheduled in South Carolina between yesterday and Saturday — and more likely to be added. Sanders, who may feel he has a better shot in March 1 contests, will campaign in other states today and tomorrow before coming back here Friday and Saturday.
With polls showing Clinton with a 25-point lead, the talking point may be how candidates did against expectations. If Clinton underperforms because black voters stay home and the young white “Berners” come out, the big commitment hurts her. If she beats him by a huge margin, it’s hard to argue Sanders can do well nationally.
The fact to watch for, particularly as we head to a general election, won’t be how blacks voted in this primary. It will be whether they did. And looking at how both Sanders and Clinton only recently decided to make the issues important to many black voters central to their campaigns, it’s easy to see why a lot of those voters may skip this round, as they so often did before Obama came along.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial page.