Bernie Sanders Meets His Final Nomination Hurdle: Black Voters
To secure an unassailable delegate majority, Sanders will have to close the deal with Black voters, starting in South Carolina.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is the Democratic Party's most important constituency.
When Charles Wright thinks about Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee, he starts to get worried. “It’s going to be easy for them to paint him as a socialist, where anything you say, you’re giving away free stuff,” Wright says. As the race turns to places like the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Conway, South Carolina, where about 100 people turned up on Sunday for an African American History Month lesson combined with political speeches from key surrogates to presidential hopefuls, people like the 64-year-old Wright are eyeing Sanders’ rise with suspicion. “He needs to be vetted a lot more,” says Wright, who is backing former Vice President Joe Biden though adds that he would vote for Sanders in the general election if need be.
Sanders continues to clear every bar set before him, gaining strength with each contest. He squeaked through the Iowa caucuses in an effective tie with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, won by a solid but not overwhelming margin in New Hampshire and dusted the field in Nevada. By outperforming expectations there, the odds of Sanders winning the nomination surged in our exclusive Forecast projections: He’s now up to a 50 percent chance of winning a majority of delegates, up from just 21 percent before Nevada.
But if Sanders is going to salt away the nomination here in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday — the 14-state bonanza when one-third of all the available convention delegates are at stake — he has to close the deal with voters like Wright: African Americans who form the base of the Democratic Party.
In the lengthy fight for the nomination in 2016, the biggest factor in Hillary Clinton’s triumph over Sanders was her strength with Black voters. Sanders has shown signs of improvement this cycle, earning 27 percent of the Black vote in Nevada according to entrance polls, to Biden’s 39 percent. In a splintered field, that will be enough for Sanders to continue to pick up victories in most places.
But as the Forecast by OZY, 0ptimus and Decision Desk HQ — a sophisticated prediction model that takes in polls, demographics, past results, media coverage and other data — shows, Biden continues to hold a decent lead in South Carolina.
This state is widely seen as a do-or-die moment for the former vice president’s cash-strapped campaign. He’s drawing on familiarity going back decades, and the power of being vice president for eight years to Barack Obama. “I think he’ll do good in the state of South Carolina,” says Biden backer Jimmy Washington, 61, of Myrtle Beach, adding a chuckle. “Well, he’s going to have to if he’s going to survive.”
Biden is spending the week camped out here seeking the win, while Sanders is spending more of his time in Super Tuesday states — which vote only three days later. Sanders was in Texas over the weekend, and after Tuesday night’s debate and a scheduled Wednesday appearance at a ministers’ breakfast in Charleston, Sanders is off to North Carolina. Notably, he will travel to Rev. William Barber’s church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Barber is the president emeritus of the North Carolina NAACP and has become a major national civil rights figure in recent years.
Sanders has made civil rights and discussion of “a multiracial coalition” more of a backbone of his stump speech than four years ago. In South Carolina, he has the support of a clutch of younger Black legislators — while most veterans are with Biden — and the gap often appears generational rather than racial.
Sanders is “more geared toward the younger group, that’s what I feel like, not so much to us,” says Christine Williams, 68, of Conway, who remains undecided ahead of Saturday’s primary. (In 2016, 65 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate was 45 or older, and 61 percent was Black, according to exit polls. Clinton won handily.)
But Alex Alduncin, data scientist for 0ptimus, points out that Sanders’ support is growing among all races as he continues to rack up wins, and polls show him closing the gap on Biden in South Carolina among Black and non-Black voters. “He’s expanding,” Alduncin says of Sanders. “Usually when you get to this point in the campaign and you’re going up that drastically — 10 percent in a matter of a week or two — then that sort of inertia typically carries you forward.”
It’s not just a two-person race here: Billionaire Tom Steyer has been flooding the state with ads and is projected at third place in OZY’s Forecast for South Carolina. Steyer also will return to the debate stage on Tuesday, after failing to qualify for the Las Vegas debate. In an interview Sunday with CBS, Biden blamed Steyer’s spending for his drop in the polls here.
Buttigieg is out with his own South Carolina ad attacking Sanders, and is spending time campaigning in the state. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is bringing singer John Legend with her as she hits the trail here on Wednesday.
Sanders is well-positioned to control the most delegates of any Democratic contender. But according to our Forecast, there’s about a one-in-three chance that no one has the 1,991 delegates they need for a majority before July’s Democratic National Convention. In last week’s debate in Las Vegas, all of Sanders’ rivals said they’d let a contested convention play out rather than simply hand the nomination to the candidate with a delegate plurality. All of them know they won’t be that plurality leader and likely have visions of a convention backroom triumph dancing in their heads.
For Sanders to squelch such Milwaukee uncertainty, he needs to close the deal with the Democrats’ most important constituency. The next week will tell us a lot about whether he can.