After predicting he could pull off a political upset in Nevada and more than a week before potential wins on Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders is assuring supporters that he is working hard to close the gap in Saturday's primary in South Carolina.
No polls in South Carolina have shown Sanders closer than 18 points down from Clinton, and he has struggled to gain significant ground with the state’s African-American voters. A Bloomberg Politics poll released Feb. 18 found Clinton leading 53 percent to 31 percent in the state, and up 59 percent to 20 percent with likely black voters there. With just five days to go before Saturday's primary, the campaign is focused on showing movement without making the same mistake of setting expectations too high.
“Obviously it’d be great if we could pull this out, but I think that no matter what happens look at the gap that was down here in South Carolina before,” said Chris Covert, Sanders’s South Carolina state director. “Our job is to continually close the gap and to show that we have momentum, and I know that we do.”
In recent speeches, Sanders has talked about how he started off 50 points behind in Iowa, 30 points behind in New Hampshire and, as recently as five weeks ago, 25 points down in Nevada. Following that thread, Covert pointed to polls from the summer that showed Sanders in the single digits and teens in South Carolina.
During Sunday's first South Carolina rally following his five-point loss in Nevada the day before, Sanders appeared to downplay his chances of winning in the Palmetto State.
“On Saturday, South Carolina has the opportunity to make American history, and I hope you will,” Sanders told a predominantly white crowd of approximately 5,200 supporters.
In his concession speech Saturday afternoon, and in texts and e-mails to supporters, some observers wondered whether Sanders was looking past South Carolina to Super Tuesday, something he strongly denied Sunday.
“I’m talking to you from Columbia, South Carolina. We have a major rally this evening. We’re not skipping over anything,” Sanders said on CBS's “Face the Nation.” “But I think that after South Carolina, we have 11 states. We have a good chance of winning a number of those states.”
During a separate interview with NBC's “Meet the Press,” Sanders said that Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Vermont are five states where he hoped to do well.
But Sanders' problems in South Carolina—low support, especially among black voters in states where those voters make up more than half of those who will vote in the party's primaries—are likely to follow him into Super Tuesday. States where the Democratic Party is more diverse—such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia—collectively hold more delegates than the less diverse states Sanders mentioned Sunday.
And while polling for the March 1 primary and caucus states has been sparse, a set of surveys released by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Sanders trailing Clinton in all of those states by 22-34 percentage points overall, and by 45-62 percentage points with black voters.
Covert repeated Sanders' statement that he has not given up on South Carolina, saying that the campaign has opened seven offices in the state in the last month. He also noted that Sanders has campus leads at every black university in the state, and has received endorsements from over 200 black business owners, in addition to a small number of mayors and state legislators. But Clinton has won the bulk of the state's important endorsements, including that of Representative James Clyburn, the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.
In addition to a rally in Greenville on Sunday evening, Sanders —along with Hillary Clinton—appeared at a special town hall hosted by BET that morning and visited a lunch hosted by the predominantly black Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia. At the lunch, Sanders was introduced by Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP. There, Jealous invoked President Barack Obama, saying that when people tell the black community “not to dream big, we say, ‘Yes we can.’”
Sanders was politely received, receiving his biggest applause line for crediting Obama with the economy's improvement over the last seven years.
Felicia Roverson, a 49-year-old educator from Columbia leaning toward Sanders, said the black community just needed to take the time to learn about the Vermont senator's record.
“I think everybody, and I hate to say this, but they don’t want to read, they don’t want to take the time to learn about the candidates' platforms, and they just want to go with what’s familiar, or the popular name,” Roverson said after Sanders spoke. “But in this election it’s so important that you really need to know the facts.”