Ask Democrats in South Carolina what they think of Bernie Sanders and the answer might just be: Who?
In this early-voting state that will test whether Sanders’ message can resonate beyond white liberals, the Vermonter is getting overrun. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s team is sewing up the black vote that dominates among South Carolina Democrats as Sanders struggles to find a strategy that will appeal to African Americans.
Clinton has demonstrated a know-how in communicating to black voters, whether it be bringing black celebrities or civil rights leaders to South Carolina on her behalf or organizing on the local level.
One day, talk show celeb Star Jones is parachuting into a Baptist church to stir up excitement for Clinton. On another, civil rights luminary Andrew Young is stumping at a civil rights roundtable. In nearby Atlanta, another Martin Luther King Jr. confidant, John Lewis, introduced Clinton at a rally.
And in the run-up to one of the most important political events in South Carolina — a forum Friday in which she and Sanders both participated — Clinton announced from Chicago that she had met with the mothers of children whose shooting deaths sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Most every nationally prominent black leader who has endorsed a candidate has lined up with Clinton. Her campaign has been laying groundwork in South Carolina for months, holding 1,100 organizing meetings, eclipsing the efforts of her rival. Sanders may argue that is just the establishment doing the establishment thing, but the latest poll suggests it is working. Clinton is supported by 70% of the state’s Democrats, and her support jumps 10 additional points among African American Democrats.
Sanders insists he doesn’t need an overhaul or a secret strategy to sell an approach honed over decades in overwhelmingly white Vermont, but just to get the word out.
“The issues that impact the people of South Carolina, the South and all over America, are the same issues that impact the people of Vermont — and that is that the middle class of our country is disappearing,” Sanders said at Friday night’s candidate forum in Rock Hill, reverting to his standard stump.
The problem is the standard stump hasn’t resonated down here as it has in New Hampshire, and there is disagreement over whether it will.
“Bernie is suffering from the fact that being up in New England, he never had to learn the language,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Secretary Clinton cut her teeth in Arkansas politics. A Democrat in Arkansas learns early how to interact with the African American community.”
Clyburn said he is hoping Sanders will learn quickly. The Vermonter, he said, has been an unrelenting crusader for policies favored by black Democrats. “But the kind of language required to translate it, he just doesn’t have,” Clyburn said.
The communication barrier for Sanders, a 74-year-old Brooklyn-raised Jewish socialist, was most pronounced when he was confronted over the summer by Black Lives Matter protesters, who demanded he repeat their mantra. Sanders lectured the protesters about his record on civil rights. The exchange did not go well.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article misquoted Sen. Bernie Sanders when describing his difficulty navigating the Black Lives Matter movement. Sanders did not say, "All lives matter." He said, "Black lives matter; white lives matter; Hispanic lives matter."
He’s since made moves to repair the damage, including meeting privately with activists, but the uncomfortable interactions of months ago were still being talked about in South Carolina this week.
At the same time, Clinton has had a notable change of fortune in a state that proved disastrous for her in 2008, when she had difficulty navigating the racial politics in a matchup against then-Sen. Barack Obama, the soon-to-be first black president. Clinton got trounced.
Sanders’ campaign operatives and volunteers say to give it a little time. They have watched their candidate defy the odds in remarkable ways elsewhere, and they expect the same to happen in South Carolina. They are, they say, only just now starting to spread the gospel of Bernie.
“Look at his platform,” said Mattie Thomas, 66, a Sanders volunteer here who was a fast-food worker at White Castle for three decades before retiring. “There is a lot of stuff for African Americans in there.”
Thomas is a die-hard C-SPAN watcher — the only other channel she turns on at all is ESPN, she said — who was drawn to Sanders years ago, when she saw him joining President Obama in championing healthcare reform. “He was all in for it,” she said. “And, you know, he’s got that wild hairdo; he’s got that look. He kept saying it over and over. He’s consistent.”
The Sanders campaign office in a beaten-down strip mall here in this deeply religious, hardscrabble central region of the state feels like a bunker. Thomas and three other volunteers, all of them African American, sat Thursday at a makeshift table in a bare room, poring over phone lists and racing to evangelize to whomever picks up the phone.
The group had just finished off a tub of chili and a plate of cornbread that Thomas brought in. They argued to callers that Sanders is offering more policies to help blacks: free public college, a $15 minimum wage, cheaper healthcare. Clinton is not necessarily popular among blacks, they argued; she is just a known name.
“Bernie is so real, so down to earth,” said Lilly Schleicher, a 55-year-old retired real-estate agent. “People need to know there is that alternative. We have what’s real. You don’t have to take what you think you have to take. You can have something real.”
Sanders’ field director in Florence is a convert himself. Ernest Boston said he stopped working for the Clinton campaign after watching Sanders deliver a speech. “Bernie has been fighting for us African Americans for decades, and people here just don’t know it yet,” Boston said.
The poll of state Democrats, conducted by Winthrop University, underscores the point. It showed just 8% of the state’s African Americans support Sanders.
“The tortoise is slow,” said Chaquita Fox, a 23-year-old student logging 20 hours a week making calls and knocking on doors for Sanders in Florence. She finishes the point like a schoolteacher talking to pupils. “But he always wins the race. Correct?”