Sanders Looks to White Working-Class Voters for Bounce Beyond Super Tuesday

The Vermont senator is focusing on the Midwestern states that helped sustain Clinton's failed 2008 campaign.

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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders makes a speech to supporters during a campaign rally on Feb. 28, 2016, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Photographer: J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is pinning his hopes for staying in the Democratic presidential race on working-class white voters, the same constituency that helped Hillary Clinton extend her 2008 campaign.

Sanders is trailing far behind Clinton in nine of the 11 states that are holding primaries or caucuses on Tuesday. Now he is looking further down the road to a set of states where minority voters who helped Clinton swamp him in South Carolina on Saturday will have a more diluted influence.

Along with Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, Sanders' campaign has been zeroing in on Michigan, which votes March 8, and the March 15 states of Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. All of them have a substantially higher proportion of white voters than the swath of the southern states that vote on Tuesday.

But time and history aren't on Sanders' side.

“He’s running a March 15 campaign, hoping that she’s not so far ahead,” said Alfred Tuchfarber, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. “That’s where he’s kind of drawing his defense line, but it’s going to be too late—he’s already going to be dead” after Super Tuesday.

In 2008, Clinton lost states like South Carolina as African-American voters flocked to Barack Obama's bid to become the nation's first black president. But she managed to extend the nomination race into June by winning nearly 60 percent of the white vote in states like Ohio and Missouri, where whites make up about 75 percent of the electorate.

To be sure, Sanders has made direct and explicit appeals to minority voters and argues his main economic message—the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle-class—resonates with voters of all races. As he campaigned outside of the south this week, he continued to talk about black youth unemployment and criminal justice reform, and held events in Flint, Michigan, and at a predominantly black public university in Chicago. He's also drawn in prominent black supporters, including director Spike Lee, actor Danny Glover, and former NAACP Chairman Ben Jealous.

“This campaign is listening to the African-American community,” Sanders said Saturday night in Rochester, Minnesota.

But that hasn’t been enough to close the gap with Clinton among black and Hispanic voters. In Nevada Clinton won 76 percent of the black vote. And in South Carolina, she won 85 percent of black voters. Clinton also bested Sanders among white voters with 53 percent support, according to South Carolina exit polls published by CNN.

The breadth of Clinton's victory in the Palmetto State—winning majorities of both the white and black vote and spanning all income categories—shows the steep hill Sanders has to climb.

“We’ve got a number of states coming up that we’re going to do extremely well and possibly win,” including California, Michigan, and New York, Sanders said Sunday on CBS's “Face the Nation” program. “I think we do have a path to victory.”

There are some opportunities for him. In West Virginia, for example, where Clinton won in 2008 thanks to her 46 point lead with white voters, a MetroNews poll released Feb. 22 showed Sanders ahead of Clinton 57 percent to 29 percent.

For other contests, making the math work is tougher. Tuchfarber said blacks are about a fifth of the Democratic electorate in Ohio and that he expects Clinton to win 70 percent of their votes. The two candidates are are likely to split the rest, Tuchfarber said. That would leave Sanders with 46 percent of the total vote to Clinton's 54 percent.

The decision to focus on states where minority voters make up less than a quarter of the Democratic electorate implies the Sanders campaign believes it will have better luck chipping at Clinton’s smaller lead among white voters.

“You go through this process and you see all the opportunities that he has,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior adviser. “If we can string together some big wins as we go through it I think there’s going to be a huge internal debate in the Democratic Party about who would be the strongest candidate.”

Devine said the the campaign’s decision to focus on states like Missouri and Ohio was not made “purely on the basis of race,” and the campaign is optimistic about its chances with black voters in later states. “We think we’ll be able to, over the months ahead, build our support in the African-American community,” he said. “We haven’t reached a ceiling, we’re still talking about moving up off our floor.”

Michigan, where African-American voters are a “strong and serious” portion of the Democratic vote even though they represent 14 percent of the total population, is one state where Devine said they believe they’ll be in a stronger position to compete by the time of the primary there on March 8.

“I think in a state like that, where issues like trade, for example, are going to have a very big impact on the African-American community, Bernie’s gonna really be able to make a very strong case to them that this is a guy who has stood with you for a long time on issues that you care about,” Devine said.

Sanders has also managed, so far, to generate enough small donations to keep his campaign going, raising $21.3 million in January to Clinton's $14.9 million, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. So far in February, the campaign says it's raised $36 million.

But even if Sanders’s post-Super Tuesday comeback doesn’t take place in the Midwest, Sanders has shown that working-class voters—who've been gravitating toward the Republican Party—are still a target for Democrats. 

“There’s still a working class that Democrats can compete for,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. “Sanders has shown that it’s possible—there are white working class voters that will respond to a strong economic message.”

Devine said those voters respond to Sanders because he speaks clearly and they believe him when he talks about taking on corporations and getting money out of politics. At a Sanders rally Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri, voters from both Missouri and Kansas, which holds its caucus March 5, echoed that sentiment.

Cliff Cummings, a 56-year-old farmer from Toronto, Kansas, said he believes Sanders is genuine and has always been on the right side of issues. “He’s not owned by Goldman Sachs, by Monsato,” he said.

Rita Newberry, a 68-year-old retired social services worker, said she liked Sanders’ truthfulness, and didn’t like that Clinton accepts large donations.

“She’s not working for the people, cause we’re definitely not benefiting from the big money, because they’re taking the jobs out of the country, they’re not even paying their fair share of our taxes,” Newberry said.  “I don’t think they can even relate to a situations that are going on in this country. They don’t know what it’s like to be down and out.”

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