ORANGEBURG, South Carolina (CNN) — Generally speaking, as far as the unpredictable 2016 Democratic primary goes, two things have largely remained consistent:
Bernie Sanders has captured the imagination of younger voters, while Hillary Clinton enjoys strong support among African-American voters.
In South Carolina, where African-American voters accounted for the majority of Democratic primary voters in 2008, Clinton holds a 65% to 28% lead over Sanders among black voters likely to vote in the February 27 primary, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll.
But here in Orangeburg — home to two of the state’s 10 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — the on-campus collision of those blocs appears to be bucking, er, “Berning” the trend.
“(Clinton) and Bernie are basically the same candidate. They have basically the same policies,” South Carolina State University freshman Aaliyah Loadholt said at a recent CNN roundtable with HBCU students. “The only difference is Bernie fights with a vision. He has a vision for America and that’s why he has my vote.”
Claflin University freshman Dexter Weathers said he was drawn to Sanders because of the Vermont senator’s plans for education and health care, and for his support of raising the minimum wage. “All of those things really had me saying, ‘I really, truly want Bernie Sanders as our president,'” he said.
Some expressed doubt over some of Sanders’ grand ideas.
“I’ve heard a lot about what he wants to do, but I haven’t heard much of how he is going to do it,” said Claflin junior Dennis Simpson.
“I most definitely would say that Bernie Sanders needs to give us more realistic plans,” echoed Sydney Shaw.
But even with a healthy dose of skepticism, Simpson said he was nevertheless leaning toward supporting Sanders, while Shaw, an SCSU theater major, said she remained undecided.
Sanders ‘Understands Our Struggle’
The excitement brewing over Sanders on the campuses of HBCUs extends well beyond Orangeburg.
On Tuesday, he delivered a speech before an electrified crowd of some 5,000 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, among the most hallowed of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, and the alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When asked to explain how a 74-year-old from Vermont was able connect with and energize young African-Americans such as himself, Weathers, 19, invoked the name of the civil rights icon.
“Granted, (Sanders) is from a place that’s 95% white,” laughed the political science major, “but he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and listened to his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He has our back.”
For Weathers, Sanders’ civil rights-era experience lends the candidate credibility when it comes to the issues facing African-Americans today. “He supports Black Lives Matter, he knows that we have a fear of walking down our street and being killed by a police officer,” he said. “He understands our struggle.”
‘A Different Lens’
According to the Department of Education, more than 228,000 students were enrolled at one of the 107 HBCUs in the U.S in the fall of 2015.
While there were diverging opinions on the candidates among the Claflin and South Carolina State students that spoke to CNN, there was universal agreement on what made discussions about the presidential race on their campuses different.
“Our issues come from a different lens,” explained Claflin senior Jacob Cogman. “We don’t come from a place of privilege.”
For the still undecided Cogman, as is the case for the students supporting Sanders and the ones supporting Clinton, that lens is focused on one thing: preserving the legacy of the nation’s first African-American president.
“I believe that we have to continue the work of Barack Obama,” said Claflin University senior Andy Michel.