Barely sticking around to celebrate her win in Nevada, Hillary Clinton took the podium at Texas Southern University late Saturday night to address a diverse crowd of college students, moms and grandparents as old as 110.
No group went unmentioned in her Get Out The Vote rally speech, less about pontificating policies and more about mobilizing voters to take a look around at problems ranging from the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, to systemic racism facing urban neighborhoods. Her theme of the night was “breaking down barriers.”
Fittingly, then, she opened by slamming Republicans for one of the more literal barriers facing voters in Texas: restrictive voter ID laws. Last year, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’s law requiring voters to bring a government-issued ID to the polls — such as a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate (voter registration cards or bills don’t count) — did in fact have a discriminatory effect on poor, minority voters, who may not have easy access to documents like those. Clinton called the law, and others like it across the country, a “Republican assault on voting rights.”
“They’re doing everything they can to stop black people, Latinos, poor people, young people, people with disabilities from voting,” she said. “It’s a blast from the Jim Crow past, and we’re gonna fight it.”
It was one of the few times Clinton even referenced the Republican Party, next to knocking Republicans for announcing that they will reject any Supreme Court nominee Obama appoints. Which, if they succeeded, could have grave consequences in Texas: Issues including the voter ID law, affirmative action at the University of Texas, and the state's restrictive abortion regulations are all up on the Supreme Court’s docket.
But as Super Tuesday approaches, sparring against Republicans could be a waste of time for both Clinton and her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom she, again, beat by only a slim five-percentage-point margin in Nevada. Focusing on issues that generally consume Texas politics and draw stark lines between the parties, like women’s reproductive rights and immigration reform, may do little to help on-the-fence Democratic voters pick a side. Political analysts the Houston Press spoke with at Rice University and the University of Houston both said that Clinton’s outlook as the clear-cut front-runner will depend not just on whether she wins Texas, but by how much.
“The unfortunate thing about being a front-runner is that people have expectations of you,” said Beth Simas, a UH political science professor, “and if you fall short of those expectations, even if you win, it makes people start questioning you and your strengths. Even if Bernie comes in second, if he does better than people expected, that actually will work in his favor and keep him in the race longer.”
And that’s probably why Clinton confined Saturday night’s speech to issues on which she and Sanders split hairs. While more affordable education is a huge part of each candidate’s agenda, Clinton said that making college more affordable wasn’t enough — that graduates need help with paying off student loans right now. (Then she referenced the story that made national headlines of a man who was arrested after not paying off a 30-year-old loan.) She acknowledged that she and Sanders care about solving the same problems, but then slammed him for being idealistic, accusing him of lying to people’s faces with his plans of free tuition for all and universal health care.
“I don’t think it’s right to look a person in the eye that’s hurting and needs help and tell them that, if they vote for you, you will get $5,000 of health care but only have to pay $500 for it. You shouldn’t say that unless you can really deliver it,” she said. “And I don’t think you should tell millions of young people that they’ll get free tuition if it actually depends on Republican governors like yours deciding to kick in tens of billions of dollars. If the numbers don’t add up, it’s wrong to make those promises."
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones went as far as calling Sanders the “Democratic Donald Trump, serving for many voters as a vehicle for protest and not the next candidate to be the next president of the United States.” He said he is certain Clinton will clinch the nomination, that it is just a matter of how soon. Recent polls show that Clinton leads Sanders in Texas by a 23-point margin, largely thanks to support from the African-American voter base. But if her narrow wins in other states are any indication, Sanders isn’t finished giving her a run for her money.
How Clinton does in Texas will depend largely on the very groups she cited who are affected by Texas’s restrictive voter ID laws: poor, minority voters. Simas said that, while Texas’s political culture of limited, hands-off government may work to Clinton’s advantage as the more moderate liberal, Bernie Sanders’s pledge to offer more government assistance may appeal largely to the working-class voter base. He has also consistently garnered more support from younger voters with his insurrectionist rhetoric calling for political revolution.
Several young voters at the rally said they were there not to cheerlead for Clinton but to see if she could sway them. One said that Clinton would win her over only if she could match Sanders’s persistent, ripping rebukes of Wall Street and big banks. Another said she was leaning more toward Sanders because of his passion for the Black Lives Matter movement — meanwhile, a longtime Clinton supporter said that was the very reason Clinton had won him over.
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For most, though, it was Clinton’s résumé that sealed the deal — her gender being only an added bonus.
One woman, Kim Frederick, paraded around the TSU gym wearing a cape and red boxing gloves as a walking Hillary Clinton For President ad. Applauding Clinton’s diplomacy in foreign policy as secretary of state, she also looked at Clinton’s accomplishments as First Lady as reasons she had won her vote.
“I look at the fact that, when she was the First Lady of Arkansas, a position without a whole lot of power, she took that state from one of the lowest-performing in education to one of the highest. Then, as First Lady of the United States, she got eight million children health insurance through the [Children’s Health Insurance Program]. Just imagine what this woman could do if we made her president."
Early voting kicked in last Tuesday for the March 1 primary election. Should Clinton win by more than a 20-point margin, Simas said, it may not be a cakewalk from there on out, but it will be a turning point.