CHARLESTON, S.C. — Three months into an improbable presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders has seen his poll numbers rise and is feeling buoyed by enthusiastic support from his fans. But plenty of challenges remain for the 73-year-old democratic socialist whose core support continues to come from white voters.
Sanders’ campaign has sensed the need to appeal beyond those core supporters as the primary calendar progresses. On a two-day swing through South Carolina, Sanders and his staff made a concerted effort to appeal to African Americans by highlighting racial justice and criminal justice reform in his stump speech and in private events with African American pastors and community leaders.
The pitch made in his stump speech, however, was made to predominantly white crowds at all four campaign events.
Neither Sanders nor any of his Democratic primary opponents are likely to win the Palmetto State, a decidedly Republican territory, in the general election. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney took the state with 54.6 percent of the vote over President Barack Obama. But South Carolina holds the third contest in the primary battle, and African Americans make up about half of the Democratic voting bloc.
That’s where Sanders’ challenge lies. According to a realclearpolitics.com average of two available South Carolina polls, Sanders has just 9 percent of the Democratic vote. Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, secretary of state and New York senator, has a whopping 67 percent. Even Vice President Joe Biden, who is weighing a third bid for the White House but has not yet entered the race, is at 10.5 percent in the website’s average.
If Sanders’ campaign is to continue fighting through a grueling primary schedule that begins in Iowa it must find a way to be competitive in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary. That’s why Sanders’ two-day swing was so important, and why he sought to cozy up to Obama and vowed to fight institutional racism at each stop.
The all-important trip to South Carolina got off to an inauspicious start. Sanders sat for hours in the Burlington International Airport terminal Friday evening waiting alongside fellow passengers as his flight was delayed. He continues to fly commercial, even as his campaign is on the rise. Clinton, the woman he is hoping to upset for the Democratic nomination, certainly does not fly commercial.
Sanders passed the time with his face buried in an iPad. He made occasional phone calls. And his wife Jane used passengers’ cell phones to snap pictures of them with the candidate. Passengers seemed delighted to see Bernie among regular people.
Sanders’ flight eventually departed and he made it to his first event in the Republican stronghold of Greenville by 11 a.m. Saturday. That’s where he began his charm offensive with the African American community.
Sanders notably referred to Obama as “a friend of mine.” Obama’s 2008 campaign was lifted by a strong showing in the South Carolina primary. After taking 55 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 26.5 percent, Obama’s campaign gained steam and fueled him through the rest of the schedule.
“In 2008, Barack Obama ran one of the great campaigns in the history of the United States of America,” Sanders said to about 3,100 people in Charleston. “He mobilized people all over this country, creating an enthusiasm and excitement that had not been seen.”
But Sanders said the president underestimated the obstructionism he would face from Republicans in Congress, which, ultimately, minimized what the president had hoped to accomplish.
“He believed that he could get into the White House and then start negotiating. He was wrong,” Sanders said. “Right wing Republicans never, ever had any intention of negotiating with him. Their goal was to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct.”
Sanders, like Obama, is hoping to pick up support from African Americans, who so far this campaign cycle have shown a preference for Clinton. His campaign has had trouble gaining support from African American voters, even before two events were disrupted by Black Lives Matter supporters. The first took place at the Netroots Nation convention in Arizona last month. Then it happened again at a Social Security event in Seattle earlier this month.
The campaign has responded by adding a “racial justice” tab on the issues section of his campaign website. He has also hired Symone Sanders, a young, African American civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter supporter, as his national press secretary. Symone Sanders, no relation to the candidate, has taken on the roll of introducing Sanders at his events.
In her remarks over the weekend she referred to the Sanders campaign as a “multiracial revolution,” and said that “black lives are under attack.”
“We know we still have work to do and need people we trust leading this country to get the work done,” she said to 3,100 people at the Charleston Convention Center Saturday evening. “People who know economic equality and racial equality are parallel issues and must be addressed simultaneously.”
Sanders himself has taken to telling his audience that the U.S. must end “institutional racism.” In South Carolina he noted the June killing of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by a white gunman. A planned campaign trip to South Carolina was canceled because of the shooting.
He also talked about the killing of Walter Scott in April. Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer after he was pulled over. Scott is among several unarmed African Americans that have recently been unnecessarily killed by police or died in police custody, Sanders said.
The U.S., Sanders said at his events, must reform its criminal justice system, including ending mandatory minimum sentencing that has led to mass incarceration. It has disproportionately impacted African Americans, he said. And police forces must be demilitarized, he said, to wild applause from black and white supporters, alike.
Some African Americans who attended Sanders’ South Carolina events remain undecided, including Isaac Black, a 36-year-old from Mullins. Black, who has served in a leadership roll for his county’s Democratic Party, said Sanders is saying the right things.
“I’m leaning towards Bernie, man,” he said. “I actually voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 [primary] election.”
Sanders “really touches on the fabric of America and the way it stands right now,” according to Black.
“He’s hitting on a whole bunch of things and I just hope that he’s able to do some of this stuff. But, we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to send him a legislative body, senators and the House of Representatives, where he can do some of the things that he wants because right now he wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that he wants to do with this country,” Black said. “When we elect him hopefully we can elect some people that are like-minded to help him accomplish the things he wants to accomplish.”
Black said he has only recently become aware of Sanders — which could bode well for Sanders if others, too, are just now tuning in to Sanders’ focus on racial justice.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Bernie Sanders, but I’ve been hearing a lot about him on the political stage for the past several months and I’ve been liking a lot of the things he’s saying, especially on race inequality and especially on raising the minimum wage to a living wage,” Black said. “I wanted to meet the man that has been saying all of these things.”
Black took part in a private “leadership meeting” with about 100 others before an event in Sumter. The meeting was intended to provide black religious and community leaders a chance to offer Sanders feedback.
“I believe that if he could just do a third of the things that he is saying politically that he can do then he’ll be a great president and he’ll be a president for the people,” Black said. “Some of the ideas that were passed were great ideas and hopefully something that he can incorporate into his campaign.”
Black said he supports the Black Lives Matter movement. But those in the movement must now be willing to step up and provide constructive policies that Sanders and others can consider, he said.
“I identify with the movement and I like some of the things that they’re saying. But, they have to back that up with what they would do differently. What would they like to see Bernie Sanders do? It’s one thing to disrupt, but it’s another to give him some meaningful policy,” Black said.
Sanders, according to Black, is now addressing issues that the Black Lives Matter movement is challenging candidates on. The black youth unemployment rate is at a staggering 51 percent, Black said, and Sanders is looking to address it.
“Definitely, black lives matter, but the quality of black lives matter, too, and I think that’s what Bernie Sanders is talking about,” he said. “Yes, black lives matter, but I want my quality of life to matter as well.”
Campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said Sanders attended several private meetings with black leaders like the one in Sumter during the two-day trip. The meetings are helping to introduce Sanders to people who know little about him.
“It’s an opportunity for him to listen to their interests and concerns and for him to talk about his positions. A lot of these folks are just finding out about Bernie Sanders and our experience is the more people know about him the more they like him,” Briggs said.
The campaign is working to reach out to African American voters, but is not abandoning its core economic message, Briggs said. That was evident in Sanders’ stump speech. Racial issues were raised toward the end of his hour-plus remarks at each stop.
“I think you pay attention to what the interests are of every state you go into,” Briggs said. “It’s a pretty common sense thing to do. It might be difference in emphasis, but it’s not a difference in his core values and issues. He’s been talking about civil rights and criminal justice reform in Vermont for a long time.”
A recent CNN/ORC poll shows the challenge that Sanders faces. Clinton’s favorability rating among whites nationally was pegged by the poll at 36 percent, while her favorability among “non-whites” is at 58 percent. For Biden, favorability is at 42 percent for whites and 53 percent for non-whites.
Sanders, meanwhile, is viewed favorably by 35 percent of whites and 36 percent of non-whites. While not as high as Clinton and Biden, Briggs said Sanders’ showing is up about 10 percentage points among non-whites from the last poll several weeks ago.
For some African Americans, race relations is not the primary concern with Sanders. George and Betty Buskey, an older couple from Sumter, attended his event there in the city of about 60,000 residents, half of which are black. The couple have yet to decide who they will support in the Democratic primary.
George Buskey noted Sanders’ struggle with black voters.
“He’s reaching out, but my strong believe is that the majority of African Americans want to go for Hillary,” he said.
His wife Betty said Sanders’ is unknown to many African Americans in South Carolina. Coming from Vermont hasn’t helped him, she said.
“To me, he’s more for the middle class and the poor people. So, that is a message for the African Americans. But, I think what it is, a lot of African Americans are not aware of him because he came from an all-white state. I think that’s the issue right there,” she said.
For George Buskey, age is more of a concern than racial issues.
“Bernie would be good, but his age is a factor,” he said. “If he was much younger there would be no doubt, you know what I’m saying?”