First in the South

Bernie Sanders Faces Skeptical Voters in South Carolina

If he manages to take Iowa and/or New Hampshire, his next test will be whether he can win over black voters in the Palmetto State.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listens to a speaker on Jan. 18, 2016, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The big question for Bernie Sanders is no longer whether he can win over white liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire, but whether he can put together a significant coalition of minority voters in a state like South Carolina, where an overwhelming majority of black Democrats are passing on his “political revolution” in favor of Hillary Clinton.

While wins in the first two states in the Democratic nomination race would give Sanders momentum, losses in more diverse states would call into question his ability to recreate the coalition of white liberals, young voters, and people of color that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. 

Sanders is still an unknown quantity for many African-Americans in South Carolina, which will hold the south's first Democratic primary on Feb. 27. Palmetto State voters who have heard of the Vermont senator may like him, but, so far, they know and like Clinton better. 

“I haven’t listened a lot to Bernie Sanders, and to me—I don’t think I’d vote for him,” said Jacqueline Owens, a 60-year-old librarian from Irmo, South Carolina, on Monday at the statehouse, where the three candidates spoke at the King Day at the Dome event celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. after debating on TV the previous night. “He doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think he’d be that strong a supporter of black votes and black issues. I’d have to do more research on him, though.”

Or, as Sammie Bacoke, a 72-year-old Army veteran backing Clinton, put it: “I think he’s all right, but I don’t think that he has the qualifications to be president like Secretary of State Clinton.”

Sanders made his case to South Carolina voters on Monday by emphasizing his ties to the civil rights movement and how his platform carries on its themes. Standing on the steps of the statehouse, where the Confederate flag hung until this summer, Sanders asked the crowd of hundreds to remember that King, at the end of his life, was working for the rights of poor people and low-paid workers.

“And I wonder if Dr. King was with us today, what would he say about a nation in which the top one tenth of 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent?” Sanders asked. “And what would he say about a nation in which 29 million Americans have no health insurance?”

Sanders's speech was well received by the audience, but the crowd was more enthusiastic about Clinton.

“There’s no question that Hillary, at this point, is ahead. You can tell in this crowd,” Representative Jim Clyburn said on Saturday night after his annual fish fry. “But it’s very clear that he is doing well in this state as he is around the country.” While Sanders's events are often described as overwhelmingly white, there were several, mostly young, African-American Sanders supporters at the fish fry.

Kyundra Martin, a 17-year-old student, said she likes that Sanders talks about issues like LGBT rights and free college education. Clinton, she said, “tries to hard” to reach out to young voters.

Martin was at the fish fry with Janet Williams, a 51-year-old federal employee from Seneca, South Carolina, backing Clinton. “I would say not Bernie because he’s new to me,” Williams said, adding that Clinton has already been under the microscope.

Recent polling has shown Sanders trailing Clinton by an average of about 40 points in the state. That deficit is even wider among African-American voters. According to a December CBS/YouGov online poll, Clinton led Sanders 67 percent to 31 percent overall, but for black voters that margin increased to 79 percent to 19 percent.

The Sanders campaign says his numbers have improved since the start of his campaign, just as they have improved in Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign also notes that candidates have received boosts in later primary states after winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. According to polling averages from RealClearPolitics, Sanders has an almost 7 point advantage over Clinton in New Hampshire and trails her by 4 points in Iowa.

Sanders has six campaign offices, 53 paid staffers, and more than 100 part-time community organizers in South Carolina, according to the campaign. They’ve aired ads, done interviews on African-American radio stations, and visited black churches and historically black colleges and universities. During the debate on Sunday, the campaign aired television ads in the state for the first time. 

At the state party's First in the South dinner on Saturday, Sanders focused on black voters, emphasizing his work with Clyburn to include funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, his participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and efforts to address felon disenfranchisement, minority vote suppression, and criminal justice system problems.

To make his case in the spin room following Sunday's debate, Sanders brought in his most high-profile advocates in the black community: former Ohio state Representative Nina Turner, Georgia state Representative LaDawn Jones (also his Georgia state director), and Michael Render, better known as Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike. While they acknowledged that persuading black voters to give Sanders a chance would be a challenge, they emphasized that his platform would help black Americans the most. Render, who posted a popular six-part interview in a barber shop with Sanders last month, rejected the idea that Clinton is doing a better job of reaching out to black voters because they favor her in polls.

“What I’m seeing in the African-American community is people waking up. What I’m seeing among black men in particular, who are often left out of the voting conversation, are saying that this is a candidate that I’ll support,” Render said. “So what I’d like to say to pollsters is you’re polling in the wrong places: you need to get in some barber shops and some beauty shops.”

And throughout the weekend, there were black Sanders supporters holding signs, wearing stickers, and cheering their candidate on. One of those supporters was Lillie Hart, a 67-year-old retired social worker and self-described socialist from Columbia, who spent Monday morning handing out flyers and talking to undecided voters for several minutes at a time about Sanders ahead of his King Day speech. 

“When I talk to people about Bernie Sanders, I’m talking to people who don’t understand or even know of him, and so I have to explain who he is,” Hart said. But “once you talk to them and tell them what this man has been about all of his life, they start thinking ‘Well, maybe, I’ll have to look at him.’ So I do believe that people are open to changing their mind.”

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