Sen. Bernie Sanders faces challenges securing the African-American voting bloc, particularly in the South — and many argue that’s the key to winning the Democratic nomination. It’s a well-known refrain that has echoed throughout the primary, growing only louder as attention turned to Southern states after his loss in Nevada.
But despite that, Sanders’ travel schedule reveals that the senator put much less emphasis on visiting South Carolina than his Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Instead, his strategy focused on states in other regions just days before voting in South Carolina began, leading many to say he resigned to losing in the state, where Clinton appears favored to win. In fact, in the three days prior to Saturday’s primary, Clinton made five times as many scheduled campaign stops as did Sanders.
The bad news for Sanders’ visits to South Carolina started last Sunday, when he made an unannounced visit to the Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina. Reports from the event said that churchgoers mostly picked at their food as Sanders spoke and stayed silent during call-outs to the crowd — a far cry from the rowdy audiences he’s used to on the campaign trail.
Later in the week, Clinton visited the same church and is said to have wowed the audience, getting standing ovations from the black sorority members, young and old, who attended the event.
“No state is a lost cause. We have made enormous ground up in South Carolina,” Sanders responded this week when asked if he was giving up on the state.
The numbers support that assessment. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll revealed last week that he gained nearly 10 percentage points from a poll the prior month. But he was still down nearly 30 percent.
Sanders has instead spent time this week in states where he does have smaller margins. On Wednesday, he attended events in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. A recent Public Policy Polling poll found him down by only 2 percent in Oklahoma.
Still it has to be disappointing to the Sanders campaign that more inroads weren’t made in the South.
The Sanders campaign has about 200 paid staff in South Carolina, and the senator has been winning the African-American endorsements he seeks, albeit slowly.
In a recent stop in Greenville, South Carolina, Ben Jealous, a former NAACP president, brought out the actor Danny Glover, and the two lit up the crowd with the kind of enthusiasm Sanders tends to find among college students. But the event was in a large arena, not in one of the more intimate venues among the African-American community that Clinton is successful at winning over.
At the same time, Sanders has won over more state senators. On Wednesday, he was flanked by African-American state Reps. Justin Bamberg and Joe Neal to announce a new initiative to fight poverty. He left the event to fly to several Midwestern states in preparation for the numerous primaries and caucuses of Super Tuesday and beyond.
The time crunch may have, in the end, proven too much for Sanders, who is still trying to get to know a community the Clintons have known for years. Fifty-three percent of black Democrats polled by Gallup in a national poll over the past month held a favorable opinion of Sanders, while 82 percent viewed Clinton favorably. Five times as many blacks said they did not know enough about Sanders to rate him as compared to Clinton.
With many states still to go, Sanders seems to have decided to take his message to as many people as he can rather than drill down on a state he’s predicted to lose. Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party, recently told Politico, “It’s clear their focus is on Tuesday and moving forward past South Carolina.”
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