The only political sign visible Wednesday along the street where a Bernie Sanders volunteer was knocking on doors was a blazing red one, supporting Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz.
But within a few minutes, Bob Marshall of Massachusetts met Vivian Weeks, an avid Sanders supporter who said she “surely would” vote for the U.S. senator from Vermont.
Grinning, Marshall put a blue “Bernie” sign in Weeks’ front yard.
Other neighbors were less certain as Marshall and another volunteer canvassed for the houses of voters who had cast ballots in previous Democratic primaries.
Some residents of the historically black Arthurtown community, off Bluff Road, said they were undecided. Some said they do not always vote. Others seemed disinterested.
Winning over African-American voters will mean the difference between winning and losing South Carolina’s Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary and many of the more than two dozen contests that follow in March, including eight in the South. More than half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters are black, making the state the first true test of the candidates’ popularity among the black voters who will play a big role in deciding the nomination.
So far, Clinton holds a commanding lead over Sanders in South Carolina. The state is shaping up to be Clinton’s primary firewall, shielding her from the full impact of potential losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders is doing better in polls in those states, where most Democrats are white and more liberal.
Among black voters, Clinton’s lead is more secure. A recent poll has Clinton leading among African-American voters by 57 percentage points in South Carolina.
Clinton has run an aggressive campaign across the state, tapping alliances from eight years ago when she ran against Barack Obama. Her campaign recently announced its next wave of S.C. outreach efforts – new campaign offices focused on turning out voters and surrogates hosting more than a dozen meetings this weekend.
‘Working as hard as we can’
Despite his weak support among black voters, Sanders has not given up on the Palmetto State.
“All I can say is we are working as hard as we can at the grassroots level,” Sanders said after a January campaign stop in Columbia. “We’re going to work as hard as we can, and I think we’re going to end up doing a lot better than people think.”
Sanders said he knows attracting African-American voters is “terribly important,” adding, “We have the agenda ... that will bring a significant part of the African-American community into our camp.”
In an attempt to reach that goal, Sanders’ S.C. campaign is running ads on urban radio stations, touting his involvement in the civil rights movement and his commitment to criminal justice reforms. It also has hired more than 100 part-time community organizers, many in black communities.
Sanders has stumped at African-American churches and historically black colleges and universities, sending surrogates, including activist Cornel West, to host events.
Before the debate in Charleston this month, Sanders attended a service at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine African-Americans were slain during a June Bible study.
On Martin Luther King Day, Sanders marched with King Day at the Dome celebrants in Columbia and stumped with other candidates on the State House steps. That evening, Sanders spoke at the Birmingham church where four girls were killed in a bombing in 1963.
For Sanders’ black supporters, the question is not whether African-Americans will support him, but when.
“We’re trying to educate people about Bernie Sanders, and, in South Carolina, people don’t know who he is,” said Christale Spain, the campaign’s state political director, who has organized about a dozen community meetings around the state.
Many who come “had no clue who Bernie Sanders was,” Spain said. But, by the end of each meeting, “they were all taking yard signs” and saying, “ ‘I just didn’t know.’ “
Conventional wisdom says Sanders is too far behind to win in South Carolina.
“He could get a lot more (votes), but it’s not going to be enough,” said Winthrop University pollster Scott Huffmon. “His greatest strength is among liberal whites. That plays well in Iowa caucuses, in New Hampshire and in Vermont,” but not among S.C. Democrats, the political scientist added.
Some Sanders supporters like to compare the senator to then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, hoping wins in Iowa and New Hampshire will shift the tides in favor of Sanders in South Carolina.
But the odds that Sanders faces are far longer than those Obama faced, when he won Iowa and then – after narrowly losing New Hampshire won – won South Carolina. With less than a month to go before the Palmetto State primary, Sanders trails Clinton by 37 points in one recent S.C. poll and 22 in another.
With more than a month to go to the 2008 race, Obama had tied Clinton in South Carolina, going on to a commanding win.
Sanders supporter Gloria Tinubu, a former Democratic candidate for the state’s 7th District congressional seat, said she wished Sanders was in the same position as Obama was eight years ago, heading into the primary.
“But I also know that knowledge is power, and once people understand the difference in the two candidates ... people will make the right decision,” said the Conway resident.
“We have an opportunity, once Iowa is behind us, to focus more clearly on South Carolina and getting our message out.”
A tough sell for some voters
Some voters have been more open to Sanders’ message than others.
The self-described democratic socialist and longtime independent has energized progressive activists, union members and young people, including students at historically black colleges where he has campaigned.
But persuading older, more conservative African-Americans and those in the faith community to support him will be more challenging, political observers say.
Sanders’ critics say some of his proposals – chief among them, universal health care – are impractical goals when working with a divisive Congress.
That perspective has stuck with some older blacks voters, said Furman political scientist Teresa Cosby. They say of Sanders’ platform, “ ‘I agree with all of it. (But) he’s not going to get a piece of it passed.’
“Our youth are ideal, and our older adults are pragmatic and they’re looking for someone who can incrementally” make changes, she said.
Explaining the meaning of “democratic socialist” also will be a challenge to Sanders.
“I don’t have any problem with it. I know what socialist means,” said the Rev. Robert Cooper, an AME Church presiding elder in the Florence-Dillon district.
“(But) I will probably vote for Secretary Clinton because I don’t really know how a socialist can win this election,” said Cooper, adding Clinton and Sanders are pushing similar policies.
‘Her or Bernie, I plan to vote’
Starting out as an underdog, running against Clinton with her deep ties to the state, Sanders’ campaign has made only one misstep, said Winthrop’s Huffmon.
“The only thing his team did wrong was make the assumption that all they had to do was get the crux of his message out and it would immediately take root.”
But in Arthurtown on Wednesday, there was room to sow seeds. Several people had not yet made up their minds.
Malik Fordham, a busy 20-year-old college student who also works, told Sanders volunteer Marshall that he did not know much about the candidate. But Fordham took some Sanders campaign literature.
Sharon Patterson, a 50-year-old health care worker, said she has some research to do.
Patterson said she is trying to figure out which candidate she “can really trust.”
She likes Clinton but questions her motives, given the length of time she has been in politics. “I would think she would be a good candidate, but I’m not sure because she’s been at it so long.”
Sandra Cochran, a retired custodial supervisor and undecided voter, said she likes the idea of Clinton becoming the first woman president. But she said she has “trust issues” with the front-runner after the bitter 2008 primary fight between Clinton and Obama.
Cochran said she thinks Sanders “would make a good president.”
“What I’ve heard from his debate, he’s a sharp man. He seems healthy, and I think he seems to care about what the people are really crying out for.
“But either or, her or Bernie, I plan to vote.”
The Democratic presidential race
Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will vote before S.C. Democratic primary voters. Here’s a look at how Democrats likely to vote in the S.C. primary compare to likely Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire’s Feb. 1 and Feb. 9 contests, according to recent polls:
S.C. Democrats are ...
▪ More diverse
While 88 percent of likely Democratic voters in Iowa and 94 percent in New Hampshire are white, 60 percent are black in South Carolina, according to a recent poll. (In 2008, 55 percent of S.C. Democratic presidential primary voters were black.)
▪ More religious
While 47 percent of Democrats in Iowa and 34 percent in New Hampshire practice a religion, 66 percent of S.C. Democrats say they are religious.
▪ More conservative
While 53 percent of Democrats in Iowa and 57 percent in New Hampshire say they are liberal, only 37 percent of S.C. Democrats say the same, while 35 percent say they are moderate and 28 percent say they are conservative.
SOURCE: NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll surveys in January of Democrats likely to vote in the states’ presidential nominating contests; S.C. Election Commission records from the 2008 presidential primary