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Bernie Sanders refuses to give up on South Carolina

The Democratic candidate's prospects don't look good in South Carolina right now, but he still refuses to pack it in. What's his motivation?
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd after speaking at the Jenkins Institute for Children in North Charleston, S.C., Nov. 21, 2015. (Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters)
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd after speaking at the Jenkins Institute for Children in North Charleston, S.C., Nov. 21, 2015.

ST. HELENA ISLAND, South Carolina — Bernie Sanders is not giving up on winning South Carolina’s first-in-the-South presidential primary, despite many analysts seeing it as a lost cause for him and even as he has precious little time before voters head to the polls.

With just more than two months to go before the first contests and a day job back in Washington as a U.S. senator, Sanders could understandably look at a 53-point polling deficit in South Carolina and decide to cut his losses to focus on other battle fronts, like the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, where the race is much closer. But that's not the tack he's taking.

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On Sunday afternoon, Sanders came out to this island near Beaufort for his eighth and final stop in the state over the previous three days. It was his second multi-day swing through South Carolina this month, which saw him crisscross the state to speak at black churches in North Charleston, attend candidate forums in Rock Hill and Charleston, and speak at town hall meetings in Orangeburg and Columbia.

“I know a lot people would pull up their tent and go home,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told MSNBC. “Bernie Sanders isn’t really a quitter … We’re going to compete everywhere and we’re going to amass as many delegates as we can."

Sanders has spent more time in South Carolina than the other two Democratic candidates, devoting 10 days to the state this year compared to Hillary Clinton’s eight and Martin O’Malley’s six, according to Democracy in Action, which tracks candidate travel. And his campaign continues to pour money into the state to expand its network of paid field organizers and to broadcast new radio ads.

Speaking to about 600 at a historic school here Sunday, Sanders asked South Carolinians for more than just their vote. “Yeah, I want your vote, but what is even more important is we need to develop political revolution in this country,” he said. 

But just getting their votes may be difficult enough. “He could take 20 points off Hillary and she’s still winning by a landslide,” said Scott Huffman, the polling director for Winthrop University, whose poll this month showed Clinton beating Sanders 71% to 15%. 

“Bernie’s best chance to move the needle the most in South Carolina is by winning in Iowa or New Hampshire. And even then it doesn’t mean he’s going to win, but it means he doesn’t lose by 50 points. And that would set up him up for the SEC primary,” Huffman added, referring to the cluster of Southern states that hold primaries or caucuses on March 1.

Even Sanders allies acknowledge his best — or only — chance of winning South Carolina may be to pick up momentum with wins in the earlier two states, whose white electorates are more favorable to Sanders. The Vermont senator hails from a state that is about 1% black; in South Carolina, the electorate that turns out to vote in the state’s presidential primary on Feb. 27 is estimated to be as much as 65% black.

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Sanders could shave off some delegates from Clinton here, even if he loses by narrowing his margin of defeat.

But more importantly, Sanders has a deep and abiding belief in the power of his message to win over nonwhite voters — if only he can reach them and they keep an open mind. His aides and allies privately acknowledge Clinton’s deep roots in the state, but question how much she or her husband have actually done for African-Americans. They are convinced Sanders is offering a better deal. 

Similarly, Sanders believes that Democrats can win back Southern white working class voters that have defected to the GOP if only a Democrat can reach them before the general election. "He does believe in his message," said Weaver. And focusing on South Carolina is a “demonstration of his commitment to compete everywhere in the general."

So far, Sanders’ theory of the case has not shown promising results in practice. It’s not that Sanders can’t make inroads into the African-American community in the primary, it’s that he now has less than 100 days to make up for Hillary Clinton’s two-and-half decade head start.

“I will not deny that if the election were held today, we would lose,” he told reporters in North Charleston. 

That gap was made plainly visible by two events, two weeks apart, at two campuses a stone’s throw away from each other, each at historically black colleges in Orangeburg. Earlier this month, Clinton came to Claflin University in Orangeburg and found a room packed to rafters with a virtually 100% black audience.

On Saturday night, Sanders came to next-door South Carolina State University and found a half-filled lecture hall with a crowd that was a least half white. Orangeburg is a majority black area that is critical to any Democrat's hopes to win statewide.

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Women at Clinton’s event told MSNBC about how long they admired the former secretary of state and her husband. (This was not even Clinton’s first stop at Claflin — she gave the commencement address there eight years ago.) Meanwhile, African-American attendees at Sanders’ stop said they appreciated the senator's message, but raised serious doubts about his ability to break a large number of black voters away from Clinton.

“He has his work cut out for him,” said Robert Jones, who said he came to see Sanders because his daughter has been actively involved in the campaign.

Northan Golden told MSNBC that he had not yet made up his mind about whom to support in the Democratic primary and wanted to see Sanders in person. “He doesn’t have those black roots," Golden said.

Sanders’ advisers note their candidate is still not well known, and take heart in the fact that Obama was well behind Clinton in South Carolina at this point 2007. But Obama had a unique demographic advantage that Sanders does not. Once the African-American senator demonstrated his ability to win white voters in 95% white Iowa, black voters in South Carolina flocked to the future president, giving him a big win over Clinton.

“Where we are right now is, we’re a little bit ahead in New Hampshire, we’re doing well in Iowa, we’re doing OK in Nevada," Sanders said in Orangeburg. "We got a lot of work to do here in South Carolina. I believe we can win here in South Carolina, but we do have a lot of work to do."

And he only has 95 days in which to do it.