Bernie Sanders, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, is eroding Clinton's lead among black voters.

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Sanders Can Win Black Voters Away From Clinton

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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Anyone who thinks that Senator Bernie Sanders can't win black votes should have seen him at a prayer breakfast in Columbia, South Carolina, on Tuesday. He may not have enough time to erase the big lead Hillary Clinton enjoys with the state's African-Americans, but he's far from hopeless on that front. It helps him that Clinton's support, as elsewhere, is pragmatic rather than inspired.

Allen University, where the prayer breakfast took place, is a small, historically black school with a four-year graduation rate of just 5 percent and a loose admissions policy, where every student gets at least some need-based financial aid. A few professors were pretty much the only white people in the audience, and Sanders was the only white person on stage.

Sanders, who was brought up Jewish, has said he's not "particularly religious," but the people next to him were ministers, and when one asked the audience to bow their heads in prayer, the senator bowed too. When R&B star Shirley Murdock, a born-again Christian invited to sing at the gathering, asked those who had a dream to raise a hand, Sanders's hand shot up with the others.

Sanders is an unlikely choice for the people who welcomed him at Allen. State Representative Joe Neal, who is also a Baptist pastor, had to come up with a creative way to integrate the senator's stump speech into what was essentially a prayer meeting. He recalled Sanders responding to a question about of his faith by saying, "My spirituality is that we are all in this together." "That resonated with me," Neal said.

Sanders is a white guy of 74. At one point in the meeting, he asked the audience whether any of them were around during Martin Luther King's march on Washington. "It makes me feel really old," he said, when no hands went up. "I was there." 

Yet the magical simplicity of Sanders's socialist agenda does resonate with audiences, black or white. He got enthusiastic applause for the same speech he has been making since Iowa, and at times, everyone rose to their feet to acknowledge the boldness of his ideas. That speech has always contained parts about combatting youth unemployment, particularly severe among blacks, and about ending arrests for marijuana possession, which give too many black youngsters a criminal record. Sanders evidently doesn't think it makes sense to tailor it to different audiences: All his beliefs are already in it. He looked incongruous in these surroundings -- but sincere, despite his concessions to the format.

The event was by invitation only, so a small crowd of uninvited potential voters -- all black -- waited for the senator at the exit. As I came out, a boy of about 10 thought I (also a white man) was Bernie Sanders, and his mother had to disabuse him of the notion. A local Sanders campaign staffer, who had been with him since the early days of his run, told me that at the beginning, no one in South Carolina had even heard of him, but as the grapevine and the volunteers worked, he began attracting unlikely allies. Sanders's strategy was simple but smart: Knowing he is popular with students, the Vermonter has been purposefully touring historically black schools. He has also gone to the leftist pastors who could relate to his preaching manner and his message of sharing and compassion.

He has made a connection with Black Lives Matter activists and people close to the victims of police shootings At a rally in Columbia on Tuesday, Sanders was accompanied by state Representative Justin Bamberg, the lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, the black motorist shot by a cop in North Charleston last year.

All this has worked to some extent. Sanders's support among South Carolina Democrats has risen from 1.9 percent in July 2015 to about 36 percent today. According to Public Policy Polling, in November, 86 percent of the party's African-American voters backed Clinton and only 11 percent were for Sanders. Now it's 63-23 in Clinton's favor. Though her advantage will probably shrink further by voting day -- I doubt her race-focused speech Tuesday in Harlem was of any use to her in South Carolina, where, like in the other early voting states, local presence appears to win more points than media reports -- she is poised to win here. 

Clinton's better name recognition is still part of it. The other part -- Clinton's pragmatic, step-by-step approach to the progressive agenda -- may turn out to be more important to black voters in South Carolina than it was to almost exclusively white ones in Iowa and New Hampshire.

I talked about it with Ken Riley, president of the International Longshoremen's Association's Local 1422, which counts about 850 members, almost all of them black. Riley is a charismatic 62-year-old Charlestonian who fought his way through segregated schools and a harsh four years at Charleston College (then almost all white) to become an important union organizer. At the ILA, he's also regional vice president for the entire South. South Carolina has a Republican-dominated legislature, and unions have a hard time in the state. "If someone wants to bring union jobs here, these guys say, 'We don't want them,'" Riley says.

The union has endorsed Clinton, and Riley supports her. "I have lived in the South all my life," Riley told me, "and I struggle every day against the establishment. I like Bernie and the lofty goals he's laying out, but how realistic are they? Tell me how, what bills you're gonna pass with this Congress? Hillary is a leftist tempered by reality. I like her connections on both sides of the aisle."

Riley fears that if Sanders wins and tries to push his idea of a single-payer health-insurance system, that will only open up the health-care issue to Republican interference. "I have a 23 year-old son who is covered by my policy thanks to Obamacare," Riley said. 

In 2008, Riley and his union were about to back Clinton but switched to Barack Obama: "Our membership is 99.99 percent African-American, and it could have been the only serious chance we had to elect an African-American president." Now, Clinton comes off as more protective of Obama's legacy than Sanders, and voters like Riley, who are proud of their choice in 2008 and 2012, appreciate it.

Yet Riley isn't a Clinton fan in the way Sanders's supporters are fans. "I'm not feeling the movement, not even seeing any signs or anything," he complains, though a Clinton staffer told me that the campaign has held nearly 2,100 grass-roots campaign events and that its volunteers  have spent 20,000 hours knocking on doors and calling neighbors.

If it were up to Riley, the labor unions would set up a third party and pick their own candidates. "Somehow that only ever comes up a year before a presidential election," he says. Stuck with the Democrats, though, he just hopes for an easier battle in the general election: "If Bernie wins the nomination, we'll support him, too, but we will have to pray and fight really hard for him to beat the Republicans."

This kind of support for Clinton doesn't amount to a "firewall" -- a term that has been used to describe her advantage in more ethnically diverse states than Iowa and New Hampshire. I can't help thinking that had Sanders been more active in the South before, he could have broken through the skepticism of important African-American leaders such as Riley. As it is, his effort is impressive but it probably comes too late both for South Carolina and for the Southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday, March 1. Clinton's superior preparation counts for more here than it did in the first two states. African-American voters' experience has taught them that it's harder to get things done than to break things. They want a president who can make progress.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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