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Ad Wars 2016: Hillary Clinton Woos Black Voters in South Carolina

With Bernie Sanders making inroads, Clinton is deploying both subtle and overt messages to hold her “firewall” down South.

Hillary for America / YouTube

While the political world focused on snowy New Hampshire this week, voters in South Carolina saw a new campaign ad pop up on their televisions. “Something is just fundamentally broken when African Americans are more likely to be arrested by police and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same thing that whites do,” Hillary Clinton says forcefully as the words “Fundamentally Broken” flash across the screen. The camera cuts to two young black men walking down a street lined with low bungalows and squat palmetto trees, a father and son tossing a baseball, and a mother talking softly to her young son. Clinton comes back on the screen, speaking directly to the camera: “We have to face up to the hard truth of injustice and systemic racism.”

Titled “Broken,” this ad is one of two powerful new spots the Clinton campaign has rolled out in South Carolina over the last two weeks. Their purpose could not be clearer: Battered by her thumping in the New Hampshire primary, Clinton needs to shore up her support among African Americans before the February 27 Democratic primary in South Carolina. 

For months, Clinton’s backing in the black community was thought unassailable—a “firewall” across the South, where African Americans make up large portions of the Democratic vote (more than half in South Carolina). But Sanders has lately been making inroads, winning endorsements from local black lawmakers and national figures like rapper Killer Mike, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and former NAACP President Ben Jealous. At the same time, Clinton’s commitment to racial justice has begun to be sharply questioned and criticized; in The Nation this week, Michelle Alexander wrote that Clinton doesn’t deserve African Americans’ support because from “the crime bill to welfare reform, policies Bill Clinton enacted—and Hillary Clinton supported—decimated Black America.”

Broken” aims to insulate Clinton from those critiques both overtly, by highlighting her support for criminal justice reforms, and subtly, by implying that she realizes her husband’s presidency was part of the problem. “When too many encounters with law enforcement end tragically,” Clinton says in the ad, “we need investments in education, health care, and jobs to counter generations of neglect.” Note, especially, that reference to “generations of neglect.”  

In “25 Years,” another recent South Carolina ad, former Attorney General Eric Holder endorses Clinton while making her other chief pitch to black voters: that she has a long history of being on their side. “In the cabinet, I served with Hillary Clinton, and I’ve known her for almost 25 years,” Holder testifies. “This is a woman who has fought her whole life for children, to protect civil rights, voting rights. And today, Hillary is pushing hard for tougher gun laws and police accountability.”

The Holder spot is partly aimed at reminding black voters that Clinton was part of Barack Obama’s administration—and that the president’s most prominent black appointee endorses her. That, Clinton hopes, will help create a clear contrast with Sanders, who’s a new face and voice for most black Democrats. Trust me, her ads say. And don’t trust the guy you don’t know, they imply.


Hillary Clinton: “Broken”

Type: Issue

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina. 

Impact: In this spot, which includes several clips of young black men, Hillary Clinton reaffirms her commitment to racial justice—a message that should play well with the approximately half of South Carolina Democrats who are black.

American Future Fund: “Weak” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? American Future Fund, a Republican group run by GOP operative Nick Ryan. 

Reach: Aired in South Carolina as part of a $1.5 million ad buy on broadcast and cable stations through the February 20 GOP primary.

Impact: This is a strong, South Carolina-themed attack ad against Ted Cruz. Republicans in a conservative state with a strong military presence will not respond well to the idea that the Texas senator has a weak national security record and, as the ad claims, previously “praised the traitor Edward Snowden.” 

Donald Trump: “What Kind of Man” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina in the Greenville media market. 

Impact: Donald Trump is recycling the same attacks that the other presidential contenders have tried to use to hobble Ted Cruz: that he voiced support for a pathway to citizenship, and that he took “sweetheart loans” from Wall Street that he later failed to disclose. So far, neither accusation has had much effect. The most original charge here is that the Cruz campaign uses “dirty tricks” and “tried to sabotage Ben Carson with false rumors” in Iowa. 

Jeb Bush: “No Comparison” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? The Bush campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire. 

Impact: Jeb Bush’s campaign ramped up its attacks on John Kasich over the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, hitting the Ohio governor for his stances on Medicaid, guns, and defense spending. But with similarly negative ads blanketing the airwaves, voters appear to have tuned this one out. They ended up voting for Kasich anyway. 

Hillary Clinton: “Valentia”

Type: Biographical

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

ReachAired in Nevada in the Hispanic media. 

Impact: This is Hillary Clinton’s first Spanish-language ad, showcasing how methodical she is being about reaching out to minority voters. This one’s aimed squarely at Latinos in Nevada, which holds its Democratic caucuses on February 20. Its most telling moment is the opening shot of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz gesticulating wildly to crowds. Showing what could happen if a Republican like Trump is elected is likely the most effective argument Hillary can make to convince Latino voters to caucus for her. 

Jeb Bush: “Stopwatch” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire for the last two days before its primary, and airing in South Carolina. 

Impact: When Rick Santorum went on MSNBC to endorse Marco Rubio last week, he inadvertently ended up gifting Jeb Bush with some of the best ammunition he’s had to go after his rival for the GOP “establishment” vote. This ad uses clips from the interview to argue that Rubio is just a “rookie senator with no experience.” 

Jeb Bush: “Accomplishments” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? The Bush campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire two days before its primary. 

Impact: The sharp contrast between Jeb Bush’s laundry list of accomplishments and Rick Santorum’s train wreck of an MSNBC interview last week, in which he endorsed Marco Rubio but failed to list a single thing Rubio has accomplished in the Senate, makes this spot one of the more effective attack ads the Bush campaign has aired. 

Our Principles PAC: “Even More Questions” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? Our Principles PAC, a super PAC run by a former Mitt Romney aide to attack Donald Trump

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire the weekend before its primary. 

Impact: After Trump finished second in Iowa, his rivals were smelling blood in the water, airing savage attack ads in the Granite State like this one, which calls out Trump for previously suggesting he supports universal healthcare, hates guns, and wants to create a path to citizenship. But you have to wonder if it was a waste of money. Trump finished about 16 points above his nearest rival, John Kasich. Our Principles might have been better served by saving its post-Iowa cash influx for South Carolina, where Ted Cruz could potentially pull off another upset victory over the media mogul. 

This week’s other new ads from Our Principles PAC: “Secret” and “More Questions” 

John Kasich: “Us”

Type: Biographical

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich 

Reach: Aired in Nevada and South Carolina. 

Impact: Aimed at voters in Nevada and South Carolina who know very little about John Kasich, this ad introduces the “compassionate conservative” message the Ohio governor used to finish a surprising second in the New Hampshire primary.

John Kasich: “Join Me” 

Type: Biographical

Who Paid for It? The Kasich campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire the weekend before its primary. 

Impact: In its first line, this ad stuck exactly the right note among New Hampshire voters bombarded with negative attacks ads in the final days before the Republican primary: “Politics has become nasty and desperate. And you know, it doesn’t have to be that way.” Kasich rode that message to a second-place finish in the primary.