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Bernie Sanders Still Has Work to Do With Black Voters

Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you had to explain in 60 seconds why Bernie Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democratic nomination, you could do worse than point to South Carolina, which will host a key primary in February that ushers in a string of Southern contests—and, on Friday night, was the setting for an MSNBC candidate forum. In the latest poll by Winthrop University, site of the forum, Sanders trails Hillary Clinton among South Carolina Democrats by a whopping 56-percent margin. The reason for the size of that gulf becomes clear when you drill down to the black voters who make up about 50 percent of the state’s Democratic turnout: Sanders has only 8 percent of black Democratic support in South Carolina, while Clinton has 80. The Vermont senator made a solid pitch to black voters on Friday night, but he largely stuck to his usual script; Clinton, in her turn, showed why it's going to be so tough to to wrest black voters away from her. 

Because the Democratic National Committee declined to sanction the event, which was sponsored by most of the South's Democratic state parties, the three remaining Democratic contenders were grilled one-on-one by Rachel Maddow in front of a 3,000-strong audience. The format suited all three: Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley was focused and poised, with far sharper answers than in the first debate; Clinton managed to come across as both tough and empathetic when asked about sensitive issues like the death penalty; and Sanders showed a much looser, more personable side of himself, joking about his uncanny resemblance to Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David and even throwing in the rare mention of his grandchildren (twice!). But when it came to Sanders's main mission of the night—winning over black voters—he mostly stuck with his standard economic-inequality message.

Right out of the gate, Maddow asked Sanders how he planned to win over black Democrats, pointing out that he comes from overwhelmingly white Vermont. More specifically, she pressed him: “Do you have enough real-world experience with the issues that racial minorities face to be able to convince African-American voters that in the South specifically?” Sanders responded with his old standby: He referenced his long history of fighting for racial justice, mentioned having marched with Martin Luther King Jr., but devoted the bulk of his answer to his core message of economic justice.

Sanders pitched each piece of his economic agenda specifically to black voters. “We’re talking about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour—and that means, over half of the black workers in this country earn less [than $15 an hour],” he said inartfully, implying that most black workers would get a raise under his plan. He went after South Carolina governor Nikki Haley for failing to expand Medicaid, expounded upon the need for free public college tuition, lamented the sky-high African-American unemployment rate, and scored some healthy applause by denouncing the prison-industrial complex. “We are going to invest in education and jobs for this country, rather than jails and incarceration,” he concluded. 

But during his 30 minutes with Maddow, that was about as far as Sanders went in connecting his economic agenda with the need for criminal justice reform. This was pretty surprising, given the concerted effort to broaden his message that the senator has made since his confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists over the summer. Since then, Sanders has talked a lot about the new civil rights movement's issues—making it a point, for instance, to often mention the name of Sandra Bland, the black woman found dead in her jail cell after being pulled for a traffic stop, among other prominent victims of police brutality. Campaigning in South Carolina in August, he described the need to combat “institutional racism.” Back in May, he was already pressing President Obama to "ban the box" and prevent a criminal record for disqualifying job candidates in early stages of hiring for federal contractors and agencies—something Obama actually did on Monday through an executive order. Hillary Clinton only came around to embracing the issue last week. 

But on Friday, those issues too a back seat to populism. Sanders fundamentally believes that economic injustice is the issue behind all the other issues, and there was a strategic rationale for highlighting it on Friday: Many African Americans still say they simply don’t know who Bernie is or what he’s about. But Sanders needs to find more powerful ways to explain how his core priorities actually connect to black voters' broader concerns. On Friday, he did that on one key issue, voting rights, making the case that his vision of a “political revolution” is contingent on ensuring equal access to the ballot. “People who suppress the vote are political cowards and are undermining democracy,” he said, his voice rising with indignation. Sanders also got a nice parting gift from Maddow, who asked him to talk about an old photo of him in college, leading a protest against housing segregation. But it probably didn't escape the audience's attention that the image was from 1962. 

Sanders’s missed opportunities became apparent after Clinton, looking relaxed and almost breezy, followed him on stage. She was helped by the questions that she was dealt: Unlike with Sanders, Maddow asked Clinton specifically about the black high-school girl who was violently slammed to the ground by a school-resource officer in South Carolina last month. Clinton spoke of the need for training school officials to defuse conflicts without violence, but quickly pivoted to the racial dimension of school discipline, pointedly noting that "the suspension and expulsion rate is so much higher for black kids than for white kids.” Then she went into an impassioned plea to combat gun violence and to hold police officers, in particular, to a higher standard. 

“We need to take a very big collective breath and ask ourselves what is happening, and what is motivating the kind of violence that we see,” she said. Clinton spoke of a recent meeting with the mothers of victims like Trayvon Martin mother, and lamented the fates of others: South Carolina resident Walter Scott (“I mean, why? It makes no sense why that happened”), and Eric Garner (“Did he deserve to die?”). Her response conveyed a genuine sense of concern and indignation, coupled with a personal connection that her campaign—very strategically—cultivated with these victims' families. 

Despite her overwhelming advantage in the polls, Clinton has her own challenges with black voters—especially when it comes to enthusiasm and turnout in the general election, if she gets that far. African Americans may know and like her, but they haven't forgotten that her husband’s tough-on-crime policies are part of the problem when it comes to systemic racism in criminal justice. It was no coincidence that, before Friday's forum, Clinton rolled out another part of her criminal justice reform platform, proposing to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences and prison time for non-violent crimes. But she still hasn’t shifted as far as many on the left would like: Maddow pressed Clinton on her support for the death penalty, which has a disproportionate impact on black Americans. Clinton responded that certain states had, in fact, "moved much too quickly to try people for capital offenses" and said she'd "breathe a sigh of relief" if the Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. When Maddow pushed her to explain further, Clinton said she only would only capital punishment in certain exceptional circumstances—when it came to terrorists, for example. 

Clinton's performance made it clear why Sanders still faces such an uphill climb. The highlight of her interview—her impassionate remarks about the black victims of gun violence—was pitched directly to the very voters that Sanders needs to win over if he wants to make a real run at the Democratic nomination. Sanders is certainly getting better at making up for his weaknesses: He spoke more convincingly this time about how his more moderate record on guns could help him build a consensus "to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them"; he revealed his sense of humor and a dash of his own biography.

Though it's a selling point for die-hard Bernie fans, Sanders's fundamental disdain for bringing the personal into the political also runs the risk of divorcing outrage from empathy—the latter of which Clinton showed in spades on Friday. That could make it all the harder to sell himself to black voters who don't know much about him, and who've been generally more likely to back establishment candidates in presidential primaries. And failing to win over black voters could prove ultimately to be Sanders's downfall. Clinton supporters like Georgia Democratic Party Chair DuBose Porter certainly expect it: “No matter what happens in New Hampshire and Iowa," he told MSNBC after the Friday forum, "they head down here to South Carolina and then the rest of the Southern states on March 1st, and that will propel her to the nomination." 

There's an alternative path to the nomination that Slate's Jamelle Bouie has laid out, in which Sanders could consolidate white working-class voters to win the Democratic nomination. But even in that unlikely scenario, Sanders would still have to rally the party's minority voters to win the general election. And there's no getting around the fact that Sanders is still struggling to win them over.