By MARSHA MERCER
In Iowa and New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls are battling for votes in small states that are only slightly more diverse than this year’s Oscar nominations.
Just 3 percent of Iowans and 1 percent of New Hampshire residents are black.
After the Iowa caucuses Monday night and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, though, the candidates and the news media will converge on states that look more like America – with larger proportions of black and Hispanic voters – and will talk about issues that affect more people.
Yes, the 2016 election really is about more than ethanol.
February also is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, review racial progress and set goals. Significant in any election year, discussions about political influence will be especially relevant seven years after the first black president took office.
African Americans voted at higher rates than whites in the 2012 general election, according to the Census Bureau, and their votes re-elected President Barack Obama, an analysis by the Cook Political Report found.
The crucial question for the fall is whether Democrats, without Obama on the ballot, can again inspire African Americans to go to the polls.
South Carolina’s Democratic primary Feb. 27 will be the first test of Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ strength among black voters in the South. Fifty-five percent of the Democratic primary voters there are black.
Clinton, favored heavily in the polls, wants to avoid a repeat of her 2008 debacle, when she first led Obama in polls in South Carolina only to lose badly on primary day.
Analysts suggest that Sanders, with his flinty Vermont demeanor and Democratic socialist tag, can’t connect with Southerners. But he just won the support of South Carolina state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, who had backed Clinton.
Bamberg is black and the lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a North Charleston police officer. Bamberg said he switched his support to Sanders after talking with him for 20 minutes on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.
Few policy differences separate Clinton and Sanders. For example, both favor raising the minimum wage, making college education free and expanding Medicaid.
But Clinton also proposes a $25 billion fund to specifically help historically black colleges and universities.
Among Republicans in South Carolina, who will caucus Feb. 20, Donald Trump leads by Ted Cruz by double digits. Born-again or evangelical voters are about 55 percent of the primary vote there. Trump won an endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late televangelist.
Nevada’s caucuses --Democrats on Feb. 20 and Republicans Feb. 23 – will be the first to hear from Western and Hispanic voters.
Then comes Super Tuesday, March 1, when a dozen states -- including Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia -- hold presidential contests.
In some ways, the primaries and caucuses, important as they are in picking presidential nominees, are the warm-up for the big fight in November.
“It’s tough to overstate just how critical black votes have become to today’s Democratic coalition, particularly when it comes to the Electoral College,” Amy Walter and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report concluded after their analysis of 2012 exit poll data.
Blacks accounted for Obama’s entire margin of victory in Virginia and six other states in the last election, they said, adding, “Without these states’ 112 electoral votes, Obama would have lost decisively.”
Race has surfaced only a few times in the presidential campaigns so far. Candidates responded to the murders of nine black church members by a white gunman in Charleston, S.C., and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.
Several candidates stumbled early on when, commenting on the Black Lives Matter movement, they said, “all lives matter.” Critics saw “all lives matter” as diminishing the loss of black lives to police violence.
Trump, who draws predominately white crowds, insists he can win black votes. His frequent Muslim-bashing, though, works against him. Twenty-five percent of American Muslims are black. After he met in November with African-American ministers who reportedly advised him to stop referring to “the blacks,” he seems to have listened.
As their campaigns head south, all the candidates will need to be sensitive to racial issues and language. They won’t be in Iowa and New Hampshire anymore.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.