As presidential candidates move past Iowa and New Hampshire and shift their campaigning efforts into the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, the quadrennial courting ritual of key leaders and voices in the African-American community has kicked into full swing.
Now, as the Democratic candidates vie to woo Southern constituents, key endorsements from black activists, religious leaders, superdelegates and celebrities have never been more important or coveted. And those being buttered up are feeling the pressure to state their support for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
On Thursday, Clinton scored a major endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, with 18 of its 20 members voting to back the candidate. the CBC PAC includes some African-American members of Congress, but is separate from the CBC itself. Two CBC PAC members remain unaffiliated, according to CBC PAC chairman Gregory Meeks, a Democratic congressman from New York and one of them is South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, who had previously pledged to stay neutral in the race.
But there are indications that Clyburn, the Democratic Party's most senior African-American in Congress, could soon hop off the fence. This week, the lawmaker said he was considering an endorsement ahead of the February 27 Democratic caucuses in his home state. If he does step into the race, Clybun is expected to endorse Clinton.
Clyburn told the Washington Post that his wife and one of his daughters had especially been pressuring him to back the former secretary of state and that he is unlikely to go against the will of the CBC. During Clinton's last presidential run against Barack Obama, Clyburn remained officially neutral, which led to a (now-healed) rift with the Clintons and a 2am dressing down from Bill Clinton over the phone.
Clinton is currently looking to keep her strong lead among black voters in the South, many of whom have maintained a certain loyalty for the Clinton name that was first seeded during her husband's presidential campaign in 1992. Some polls put Clinton at a 55-point advantage over Sanders among black voters in South Carolina.
On Wednesday, after her stinging loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, Clinton also announced that she would be campaigning with the mother of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who was found hanging in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop. Clinton has also shored up support from the families of other African-Americans killed by police including the mothers of Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, and Jordan Davis. The family members will campaign for the candidate in South Carolina in the coming weeks.
But the Sanders campaign is hoping the dial could yet shift, as they fire up their own efforts to lock down the backing of key figures in the black community, amid concerns his surge of support in Iowa and New Hampshire will not translate to more diverse states. On Thursday, while Clinton proudly disclosed her endorsement from the CBC, the Sanders campaign announced its own high-profile endorsement from entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.
"I would suggest to those of you who have not yet made up your minds, or maybe even some of you who have made up your minds, to maybe consider and reconsider what it is that Bernie Sanders offers," Belafonte said in a video Thursday.
Later Thursday evening, Sanders released a nearly four-minute video featuring Eric Garner's daughter, Erica Garner, who split politically with her mother in endorsing the senator. Erica Garner appears in the video with her own young daughter, praising Sanders as "a protester" like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. "There's no other person that's speaking about this. People are dying. This is real. This is not TV," Garner says in the video. "We need a president that's going to talk about it."
Garner first posted the video on her website, saying that Sanders "didn't reach out to me all of a sudden because he needs help with Black people" and that his team gave her "full creative control" over the ad. "You will see a lot of Black leaders handing out endorsements," she wrote in a blog post Thursday evening announcing the ad. "Think to yourself, have they historically been a rubber stamp for the establishment?"
MSNBC's Kasie Hunt reported on Twitter that the Sanders campaign will air a two-minute version of the ad on national cable.
A day earlier, the acclaimed African-American author and journalist Ta Nehisi Coates also came out and said he would vote for Sanders. Coates' announcement came despite an earlier and scathing assessment of the senator as a "candidate of partisanship and radicalism," who "has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy" not three weeks ago in an article he wrote for The Atlantic. In that same piece, which focused on reparations, Coates suggested that the Vermont senator's focus on income inequality has perhaps blinded him to issues of race.
Coates followed up Wednesday by saying he was not formally "endorsing" anyone and "doesn't intend to try to sway anyone else," noting that he only said he would vote for Sanders in response to a direct question in an interview. But the declaration was also notable because it was made the same morning Sanders had a highly visible sit-down with civil rights leader Al Sharpton at Sylvia's, a landmark soul food restaurant in New York's Harlem neighborhood. Sharpton had breakfast there will then-Sen. Barack Obama before endorsing him in the 2008 election.
"It is very important that [Sanders] sent a signal that on the morning after a historic victory — it's the widest margin we've seen in the history of New Hampshire — he would come to Harlem and have breakfast with me," Sharpton told reporters after the meeting on Wednesday.
Sharpton, who has had a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the Clintons, later said on MSNBC's "Meet the Press Daily" that he had not endorsed anybody, but wanted to hear "specifics, not just catchphrases" from the candidates on racial justice issues.
Sharpton was among a number of prominent African-American leaders who championed Obama in his run against Clinton in 2008. Also on that list is Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who has this time around pledged his support for Clinton.
But even stated support from African-American lawmakers for the Clinton campaign isn't necessarily guaranteed. Last month, Justin T. Bamberg, a prominent African-American lawyer and South Carolina state representative, announced his support of Sanders after initially endorsing Clinton this cycle. Bamberg is a high-profile civil rights attorney in the state and represents the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police. In switching his 2016 loyalties, Bamberg said that Clinton was "more a representation of the status quo," while Sanders is "bold" and "not afraid to call things as they are."
In recent months, Sanders has also received endorsements from other prominent African-American figures including Dr. Cornel West, rapper Killer Mike, and former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous. The campaign hopes that these developments will lift his cachet with some African-American voters.
Waltrina Middleton, who is a Black Lives Matter activist and cousin of one of the victims of the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, said while the BLM movement has not formally endorsed a candidate, she respects Sanders' track record.
"He has demonstrated long before running for office a commitment to addressing social injustices, particularly along racial discrimination and working with communities who are impoverished," she told VICE News last month.
Middleton added the senator still had an uphill battle to secure the African-American vote in the first-in-the-South primary, but was critical of Clinton.
"In South Carolina, people vote for what's familiar, and there is this nostalgic appreciation or loyalty for the name Clinton, even if there isn't any demonstrated evidence that the Clintons did anything that benefitted the black community," she said.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clinton on Thursday. The CBC PAC, which is made of some CBC members in Congress and others, made that endorsement.