Bernie Sanders' Southern Strategy

Why is the Vermont idealist taking his campaign across the deep South? One reason is to show the voters of New Hampshire and Iowa he's serious.

Bernie Sanders is taking a General-Sherman approach to his summer, barnstorming across a deep South that is definitely enemy territory for Northeastern liberals. But unlike Sherman, the strategic purpose isn't clear. In fact, at first glance, it seems to be among the most Quixotic ventures of his young campaign, given the degree to which Democrats are outnumbered there. 

Before a Sunday rally in Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb about 12 miles outside of New Orleans, the candidate held a small house party at the home of Dr. Gilda Reed. Reed, a psychology professor who’d once run for Congress on a platform similar to Sanders’s, had been selected to host the event that Wednesday, after offering her place up to a Facebook friend who’d been tasked with finding a venue. “Who’s as excited as I am that he’s coming?" Reed said in a status update. "Private message me.”

The result was about 40 mostly middle-aged, mostly white Louisiana liberals—a mix of Reed’s Facebook friends and fellow members of the Jefferson parish Democratic Executive Committee—packed into the living and dining rooms of her shotgun-style one story house. In the center of the room, Sanders stood under a ceiling fan, listening as the crowd talked over each other. Having Sanders there was clearly cathartic for the liberal audience—but it underlined the challenges they face as Southerners, given Republican hegemony in the region.

“Global warming, it’s going to be disastrous,” one man at the event explained. 

“Is climate change an issue? Is that not talked about here in Louisiana?” Sanders said. It’s not talked about, several people responded.

“We’re all gonna be under water,” one visibly concerned woman said. “No one can afford their flood insurance.”

“Oil and gas owns this state,” another woman shouted indignantly. 

“Fracking,” another chimed in as though the word alone was self-explanatory. 

The house party was the smallest of four events on the senator’s schedule in a two day swing through the state, which attracted Sanders’s usual sheaf of favorable media coverage.  He made “a direct appeal to black voters” at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gala in Baton Rouge on Saturday according to MSNBC, and “whipped up a thunderous crowd” of 4,500 in Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center according to the Times Picayune. (When I mentioned to Reed that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal only managed to draw 1,000 people to the same venue for his presidential announcement, she quipped “and he probably had to pay them to get them there.”)

KENNER, LA - JULY 26:  Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) speaks to guests at the Louisiana Rally with Bernie Sanders at Ponchartain Center on July 26, 2015 in Kenner, Louisiana.  (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at the Ponchartain Center on July 26 in Kenner, Louisiana.

Photographer: Josh Brasted/Getty Images

But that doesn’t quite explain what Sanders stands to gain from spending a weekend in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1996, and whose primary comes so late (March 5, the Saturday after Super Tuesday) that he may not even still be in the race. In August, Sanders will continue his unlikely Southern swing by campaigning in Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, only the last of which is an early primary state. 

During his speech at the Pontchartrain Center, Sanders criticized the Democratic party for writing off the state. “And I’m here to tell you that the time is now for us to fight in 50 states of the country,” he said, before flipping the question.  

“The media pundits are worried and they’re wondering—how does it happen, why are four, five thousand people out here in Louisiana? You’re not supposed to be here. Why were 11,000 people out a week ago in Arizona, in Phoenix?” he said. “And the answer, I think, it that people are catching on, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do economics, and politics, in America today.”

Credibility threshold

According to Tad Devine, Sanders’s campaign advisor, there are three major reasons to campaign in every state: to introduce the candidate to different constituencies, to help build a national campaign infrastructure, and to get over what Devine called the “threshold of credibility” in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

“I’ve seen how important that vote is to people who participate in those events,” Devine said during a phone interview, referring to voters in the early state caucuses and primaries. “They take it very seriously and they won’t waste it on a candidate who they don’t think is a serious, credible, national candidate.”

The kind of large crowds and positive media Sanders has been winning doesn’t always translate to electoral success, as Sanders’s fellow Vermonter Howard Dean might point out. But Dean was also the architect of the Democratic Party’s 50 state plan in 2005 when, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he pushed for the party to establish a party infrastructure in every state. The plan was criticized as a waste of resources (Democratic strategist Paul Begala memorably said Dean was “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose”) but led to tangible improvements in the party’s performance in red states between 2004 and 2008.

And the curiosity about and passion for Sanders on the hustings is something that differentiates his campaign from Clinton’s; in a conventional war, she wins. “If we just go by the traditional roadmap of the way we run the campaign, that’s a losing campaign for us,” Devine said. “We can’t win that campaign.”

Getting his message out there

Reed’s own experience suggests the difficulties for a Democrat in having an actual electoral impact in the deep South. In 2008 she ran against now-Representative Steve Scalise in the special election for the House seat Bobby Jindal left when he was elected governor. Her platform closely resembled Sanders—for unions, for universal health care, against the war in Iraq. (Like Sanders, she was also averse to going negative—Reed and her son and campaign manager were tipped off to Scalise’s attendance at a white supremacist event during the campaign, but didn’t divulge that information until last year.)

If anything, she was a more electable candidate—she didn’t even mention the word gay and she had an A rating from the National Rifle Association. She lost by over 50 percentage points

And truth be told, she’s not even a totally committed Sanders supporter. When I asked her if she would support him in the Louisiana primary, she said that she also likes Hillary Clinton, and hasn't decided who to support. 

Still, she hoped Sanders would be able to get his name out there, noting that her own sister didn’t know who he was. “I’m hoping that his mission statements are getting out,” she said. “I’m hoping his views are being more widely distributed.”

The weekend itself was split between introducing Sanders—through his Saturday appearances at the SCLC banquet in Baton Rouge and the state Democratic party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in New Orleans—and preaching to the choir at his rally. While Sanders was well received by the black audience at the SCLC, the rally audience was mostly white.

Many have observed that the racial composition of Sanders's constituency is his Achilles heel. A new Gallup poll showed that while 80 percent of non-white Democrats view Clinton favorably, only 25 percent view Sanders the same way—which may say more about his name recognition than actual support, but suggests the size of his challenge. 

Sanders attempted to address both of those problems at the SCLC gala. “I am aware that many of you don’t know me very well, so let me just say a few things about myself by way of introduction,” he told the crowd, before outlining his platform for reducing racial inequality (ending for-profit prisons, retraining police to use violence as a last resort, cracking down on illegal hate groups). Sanders also made the case for economic and racial inequality being intertwined.

“‘What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?’” Sanders added, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. While the SCLC audience wasn’t as enthusiastic as his rally, he received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks. 

Devine maintains that he’s not yet worried about the shape of the Sanders coaltion. “It’s not going to be like ‘rallies are for white people and the meetings are for black people.’ That’s not the way we see it,” Devine said. “As his appeal grows, and as he becomes better known in different areas of the country, I would expect that we’re gonna be able attract large crowds and very diverse crowds. Crowds that will look more like the floor of the Democratic convention, than the floor of the Republican convention.”

In the dream-y ambience of the current Sanders crusade, even a blue Louisiana is not out of the question. “I think some people say ‘Look, Louisiana—he doesn’t have a chance,’” Devine said. “Well, the truth is, if Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee of the Democratic Party, you know, a long shot candidate against a prohibitive front runner wins the nomination, I don’t think anybody knows which states are in play.”

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