Politics & Government

Bernie Sanders is campaigning in SC. What’s changed after his 2016 loss?

When Bernie Sanders kicks off his 2020 presidential campaign in South Carolina on Thursday, his Palmetto State supporters hope he will come in with a plan to broaden his support beyond what he was able to draw four years ago.

Sanders’ last presidential foray into South Carolina didn’t turn out so well. The self-declared democratic socialist lost the state’s 2016 Democratic primary to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin.

Lawrence Moore, a 2016 Sanders staffer who now serves as co-chair of the progressive group Our Revolution SC, says the 77-year-old Jewish-American senator from a mostly white state will need to be able to speak more directly to the black voters who make up the majority of the state’s Democratic electorate.

“You can’t talk about social issues and economic issues, and overlook racism,” Moore said.

Sanders returns to South Carolina with a rally at the Royal Family Life Center in North Charleston starting at 7 p.m. Thursday.

That 2016 loss highlighted some of the limitations of Sanders’ appeal among African-Americans. Exit polls showed African-American voters made up 61 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016, and 86 percent of them opted for Clinton.

The eventual nominee had even stronger support among African-American women, who made up 37 percent of all Democratic voters. Clinton won 89 percent of their votes.

This time around, Sanders supporters say he’s gained ground since then, when he started out as a little-known senator. Now most national polls show Sanders near the lead in an already crowded field, trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to announce.

“He started out with limited name ID” in 2016, said Sanders campaign pollster Ben Tulchin, and since then “he’s emerged as one of the most popular senators in the country across gender, ethnic and racial lines.”

Moore says this time Sanders should know “people in the South don’t react to things the same way someone in New York would.”

“Black people in South Carolina face challenges that white people, (even) low-income people, don’t,” he said. “You can say you want a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but that’s not enough if you don’t have the same opportunities as your counterpart.”

Campaigners also plan to highlight the 77-year-old’s activism during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders took part in sit-ins to integrate university housing, and later attended the 1963 March on Washington.

“He had very little time to tell that story” last time, said campaign manager Faiz Shakir. “Now we have a much longer window.”

So far in 2020, Sanders has worked to include appeals to racial justice into his usual formula of economic inequality. The senator spoke in Columbia at a Martin Luther King Jr Day rally at the State House, then met with students at the historically black Benedict College the next day.

He’s also endorsed U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 plan to direct 10 percent of certain federal funding to counties where 20 percent of the population has lived under the poverty line for 30 years or more.

S.C. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, was an early supporter of Sanders’ in 2016. He thinks Sanders is in a good position to re-energize the support that made him a contender last time, and that his message — of protecting health care access, raising wages and lowering education costs — doesn’t need to change very much to appeal to a South Carolina audience.

“What minorities want out of government, that’s what he’s spent the bulk of his career advancing,” Bamberg said.

Senior campaign adviser Jeff Weaver said this week the Sanders campaign is working more quickly to get on-the-ground staffers in place in the early primary states — South Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire — plus California, which will award a large number of delegates with its primary the first week of March next year.

Weaver said the campaign is working with South Carolina supporters, including local elected officials, to fill out its South Carolina team. On Tuesday, the Sanders campaign announced hires in Iowa and New Hampshire, but haven’t named any local staff in the Palmetto State.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.