In 2016, Sanders was blown out in South Carolina. Has he learned how to win over black voters in 2020?
South Carolina’s primary will be a crucial test for Democratic 2020 candidates who are looking to appeal to African American voters.
If there’s one script from 2016 that Bernie Sanders wants to flip in 2020, it’s the one on how he just doesn’t resonate with a wide range of black voters as much as his rivals do.
Nowhere will the senator from Vermont face a greater reckoning on this score than in South Carolina, where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black and where, four years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat him in the primary by almost 50 points — a stratospheric margin.
While Clinton had always been the odds-on favorite to win the Palmetto State — aka “Clinton Country” — Sanders’ messaging on race likely did little to help him woo more than just younger black voters. Back then, he often failed to articulate the quieter complexities of oppression to a base that’s increasingly wrestling with race and identity.
Ahead of South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, then, a fair question to ask is: Has Sanders’ outreach to black voters in the state felt meaningfully different this time around?
In interviews here, black Sanders supporters — who arguably have a distinct interest in observing if and how the campaign grapples with the unflattering narrative from 2016 — said that they’ve perceived a change, especially when it comes to the senator’s team.
“Sanders has been selling the same product his entire life,” Allen Kagler, 22, who said he’s knocked on “maybe 7,000 doors” for the senator, told CNN, referring to Sanders’ broad message of social justice. “But it’s about how you angle it toward specific communities. I feel like in 2020, maybe he hasn’t been doing it, but his team” — which both nationally and in the state is more diverse now than it was in 2016 and has beefed up its grassroots work — “has been more intentional in this way.”
Kagler continued: “Sanders has people who are willing to go out and have these (more direct) conversations with the black community.”
Consider former Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner. A co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 campaign and one of his top black surrogates in 2016, she’s made the Palmetto State her “adopted home” during this election cycle, working to forge local relationships.
“We paid lots of attention to South Carolina. (Sanders) has been to about 60 events in that state,” Turner told NPR earlier this month. “He started going through that state in the latter part of 2018, even before he knew he was ever going to run again. So he was continuously doing the work of the people, being out there on the front line.”
And just last weekend, as Sanders was anticipating his thumping victory in the Nevada caucuses while on the campaign trail in Texas, the scholar Cornel West and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, two of Sanders’ most prominent black surrogates, were stumping for him in a historically black neighborhood in Columbia, Mother Jones’ Kara Voght reported.
Faith Adedokun, 34, echoed Kagler’s sentiments.
“I do think that there’s been a bit of a pivot in 2020,” she said, in Sanders’ approach to black voters in South Carolina. “But it’s less that he’s altered his message and more that he’s been particular about where that message is going and how it’s getting there.”
That Sanders has been so consistent in his expansive calls for equality was a common point of praise in interviews.
“That’s part of what I like about him,” Adedokun said. “Candidates do have to evolve as the world around them evolves, but I think that one of the reasons Sanders hasn’t changed much is because he’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to the issues he’s been trying to push to the forefront of the national conversation.”
Still, change — what it looks like, what it should look like — is subjective. For some black voters here, Sanders’ campaign either no longer stands out from the progressive crowd or hasn’t grown enough, so they’ve peeled off from it.
“I appreciate when Sanders comes to the South to campaign and talk about how he can help us, but I needed more from him,” Latia Curtis, 34, who supported Sanders in 2016 but in 2020 backs Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, told CNN. “I probably would’ve stayed (in his camp) had I heard clear, unabashed support for things that aren’t just (class) politics but are about people’s humanity.”
Curtis added: “I do believe that his intent is good — that he wants to make it easier for all people to break free from the grips of poverty. But there are a lot of other (intersecting) social issues I wanted him to be passionate about. I don’t feel like he is. I feel like Warren is.”
Lawrence Moore, 64, was equally blunt in detailing his turn away from Sanders.
“A lot of times, politicians talk to you but not with you. And from 2016 to now, my impression is that Sanders doesn’t address black issues from the perspective of black people but rather from the perspective of his need to have us on board,” he said.
Moore, who was the South Carolina political director for Sanders’ 2016 campaign and is still mulling over the remaining 2020 candidates, recalled a moving event the senator held in 2014.
“He was in Columbia, at The Lourie Center, talking about a variety of progressive issues,” he said. “I had the opportunity to ask him about the Black Lives Matter movement, and I remember thinking that the way he talked about it was beyond how other white politicians talked about it at the time.”
This enthusiasm has since cooled.
“Given the several decades he’s been in politics, I don’t think that he has the relationships with our community that he should have,” Moore said. “I’m still very impressed by his positions on issues, but many other people have had those same positions. Sometimes Sanders’ supporters act like he invented the idea of universal health care. But when I was in college at the University of South Carolina, I backed Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter. I did so partly because of Kennedy’s understanding that we need universal health care. And that idea had already been around before him.”
In the Palmetto State, former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead among black voters, with 35% favoring him for the Democratic presidential nomination and 20% favoring Sanders, according to a poll from NBC News/Marist released on Monday. (Crucially, on Wednesday, South Carolina’s Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking black American in Congress and an icon in the state, endorsed Biden.)
Zooming out, Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, where his research focuses on the role of race in electoral politics, was dubious about whether Sanders will shore up national black support in 2020 in a way he didn’t in 2016.
“I think that his black support this cycle looks a lot like his black support in 2016. It tends to be geographically dispersed and stem from younger black voters who usually lean to the left on a range of policy issues,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say that Sanders has hit a ceiling, but he seems to have found his constituency, and it’s similar to what it was four years ago. The question is: Can he increase his share of the black vote through turnout instead of through converting older black voters?”
On Saturday, the country will move one step closer to getting an answer.