A glance across the crowd that came to see Bernie Sanders’ first official presidential campaign stop in South Carolina revealed one of his biggest challenges.
The 1,600 people who turned out for his rally in North Charleston on Thursday were as passionate as the crowds that flocked to Sanders during his 2016 run, when the little-known democratic socialist from Vermont finished as a surprisingly strong second — nationally, at least — to Hillary Clinton.
But in a state whose Democratic voters are heavily African-American, the crowd was mostly white. That contrast could dash Sanders’ 2020 hopes, as it did in 2016, when a lack of African-American support was a big part of his lopsided loss in the 2016 South Carolina primary.
Sanders lost the state’s 2016 Democratic primary to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin. Exit polls showed African-American voters made up 61 percent of S.C. primary voters that year, and 86 percent of them opted for Clinton.
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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 year, Sanders faces the challenge of improving his standing with the state’s black voters even as he faces a larger and more diverse primary field, with not one but two viable African-American candidates for the presidency.
“Hillary Clinton actually won a larger share of the African-American vote in that contest than Barack Obama,” said College of Charleston professor Jordan Ragusa, who co-authored an upcoming book on the South Carolina primary.
What does Sanders have to do to win over the Palmetto State ahead of next February’s primary?
Reach out to black voters
Outside Sanders’ S.C. rally this week, Diamond Survine of Charleston said Sanders’ “history with the African-American community matters,” referencing the 77-year-old Sanders’ civil rights activism in 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.”
But Survine said Sanders had not focused enough of his 2016 campaign on “what’s been happening the last few years,” citing the surge in gun violence and the 2015 Charleston church shooting.
Lawrence Moore, a 2016 Sanders staffer who now serves as co-chair of the progressive group Our Revolution SC, says this time Sanders should know “people in the South don’t react to things the same way someone in New York would.”
“You can’t talk about social issues and economic issues, and overlook racism,” Moore said. “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.”
Rev. Joe Darby with Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston wants to hear Sanders speak more directly to the African-American experience, rather than the more color-blind economic message Sanders pushed before.
“I understand the concept of a rising economic tide lifts all boats,” Darby said, “but the racial disparity means your boat might be a mile from shore.”
Sanders did include an appeal to “racial justice” in his speech Thursday, citing disparities between whites and blacks in terms of wealth, income, health care outcomes and interactions with the criminal justice system.
“We’re going to change that,” Sanders said.
A better ground game
While Sanders held similar rallies in South Carolina in 2016, Darby said Sanders failed to reach out to him and other community leaders with the regularity they usually see from campaigns that want to connect with voters on the ground.
“I think he needs to up his game on outreach and sit down with voters,” Darby 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.
Time will tell whether Sanders will commit more time on the ground in South Carolina this time around. So far, he hasn’t done the local street-level meet-and-greet opportunities other candidates have engaged in.
However, before he announced his run, Sanders came to Columbia to speak at the annual King Day at the Dome, honoring the slain civil rights leader’s life. For that trip, he also held a town hall and met with students at Columbia’s historically black Benedict College. On Friday, he held a health care round table in Charleston at the International Longshoreman Hall in Charleston.
Part of Sanders’ strategy should be to get African-American leaders behind him and spread the word, said Democratic operative Antjuan Seawright.
“He needs more African-American validators and ambassadors,” Seawright said.
Sanders often appears alongside Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who now serves as president of the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution. Four other local African-American lawmakers also spoke at Sanders’ North Charleston appearance: Reps. Terry Alexander, D-Florence; Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston; JA Moore, D-Berkeley; and Krystle Simmons, D-Berkeley.
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.
Hope for a split
While Sanders may replicate his early 2016 successes in the primaries — he nearly tied Clinton in Iowa and clobbered her in New Hampshire — he could face an even greater challenge to winning over southern Democrats, who are heavily minority, as he heads to South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary.
And statistically, the odds cannot get much tougher for Sanders, passed up in 2016 by nearly three out of four S.C. Democratic primary voters who picked Clinton instead.
Sanders already faces two African-American U.S. senators — Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California — who are making their own pushes into South Carolina this year in efforts to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Both Harris and Booker have made multiple visits to the Palmetto State so far, seeing it as key to their chances of victory.
“They (Booker and Harris) realize the two most important words in the Democratic primary are ‘South Carolina,’” Seawright said.
Ragusa, the College of Charleston professor, sees a potential opening for Sanders if Booker and Harris end up splitting the African-American vote between them.
But “If one of them drops out before (the primary), that’s a game changer,” Ragusa said.
Stay out of Biden’s lane
Sanders can point to polling showing him as one of the strongest candidates early in the race.
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.”
But Biden’s support is strong in the Palmetto State. A February poll of S.C. voters by Change Research, San Francisco-based Change Research polling firm, shows a hypothetical Biden candidacy with 36 percent of the vote. Sanders trails in second with 14 percent, just ahead of Harris with 13 percent.
If Biden does ultimately jump into the race, Ragusa says his appeal to blue-collar workers could eat into a potential source of votes for Sanders’ brand of economic populism. Biden also could benefit from the eight years he spent as President Barack Obama’s No. 2.
“(Biden) knows South Carolina well, he spends time here,” Ragusa said, noting Biden’s frequent vacations on Kiawah Island. “He could siphon off a lot of votes.”
Sanders supporter Skyelynn Landry of Charleston thinks those voters will be a strong component of a winning coalition for Sanders.
“He needs to attract a kind of libertarian, disenfranchised white voter,” Landry said Thursday. “He can break the spell of blue-collar workers who haven’t heard him yet, and are scapegoating immigrants or whoever for their problems.”
Her friend Sarah Daugherty summed up the pitch. “Offer them a solution to their problems that isn’t racism.”