On ABC’s “This Week” yesterday, host George Stephanopoulos asked Bernie Sanders about his campaign strategy at this stage of the race. The Vermont senator, making an oblique reference to his message to Democratic superdelegates, presented himself as a “stronger candidate” than Hillary Clinton. It led to an interesting exchange:
STEPHANOPOULOS: She’s getting more votes.SANDERS: Well, she’s getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.
Just as a matter of arithmetic, there’s certainly some truth to that. Clinton, at least for now, has a sizable advantage over Sanders – both in pledged delegates and in the raw popular vote – in part because of several big wins from Texas to Virginia. Remove her successes in the region from the equation and the race for the Democratic nomination would obviously be very different.
The result is a provocative rhetorical pitch from Team Sanders: Clinton may be ahead, but her advantage is built on her victories in the nation’s most conservative region. By this reasoning, the argument goes, Clinton’s lead comes with an asterisk of sorts – she’s up thanks to wins in states that aren’t going to vote Democratic in November anyway.
Stepping back, though, it’s worth taking a closer look to determine whether the pitch has merit.
First, it’s worth appreciating the fact that “the South,” as a region, includes some states that are far more competitive than others. Is there any chance of Alabama voting Democratic in the general election? No. Is there a good chance states like Florida and Virginia will be key battlegrounds? Yes. In other words, when talking about the region, it’s best to appreciate the nuances and not paint with too broad a brush. Indeed, even states like North Carolina and Georgia could, in theory, be close.
Second, there’s an inherent risk in Team Sanders making the case that victories in “red” states should be seen as less impressive than wins in more liberal states. After all, some of the senator’s most lopsided successes have come in states like Utah, Kansas, and Idaho, each of which are Republican strongholds. (Similarly, Clinton has won in some traditional Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts and Illinois.)
But perhaps most important is understanding why, exactly, Sanders made less of an effort to compete in the South. The New York Times reported last week on the campaign’s strategy headed into the Super Tuesday contests in early March.
Instead of spending money on ads and ground operations to compete across the South, Mr. Sanders would all but give up on those states and would focus on winning states where he was more popular, like Colorado and Minnesota, which would at least give him some victories to claim.The reason: Mr. Sanders and his advisers and allies knew that black voters would be decisive in those Southern contests, but he had been unable to make significant inroads with them.
It’s a key detail because it suggests this has less to do with ideology and more to do with race. The notion that a liberal candidate struggled in conservative states because of his worldview is inherently flawed – Sanders won in Oklahoma and Nebraska, for example – and according to the Sanders campaign itself, skipping the South was necessary, not because the right has statewide advantages in the region, but because of Clinton’s advantage among African Americans.
Sanders wasn’t wrong to argue on ABC yesterday that “a lot” of Clinton’s lead “came from the South,” but it’s an incomplete description. It downplays Clinton’s success earning support from one of the Democratic Party’s most consistent and loyal constituencies: black voters.