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How Bernie Sanders hopes to pull a Michigan in Ohio

On Cleveland's East Side, his supporters are counting on young people to cut into Clinton's margin with black voters. But his path is neither easy nor clear.
Vermont Senator and Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is seen through a window as he speaks at a town hall forum at the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, March 5, 2016. (Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
Vermont Senator and Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is seen through a window as he speaks at a town hall forum at the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, March 5, 2016. 

CLEVELAND — It’s a Thursday night, five days out from Election Day, and Nina Turner is trying to find people to volunteer for Bernie Sanders in the city’s overwhelmingly black East Side.

It’s not easy. Working the phone banks never is. “You never get to too big to phone bank, that’s my opinion,” says Turner, a former state senator who has made a national name for herself after rising through the political ranks on the East Side. But it’s especially difficult when you’re running against Hillary Clinton, who has built a reputation for coalescing the black vote in every 2016 Democratic contest to date — that is, except for one.

In Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, Clinton won African-Americans by less overwhelming margins, beating Sanders among blacks 68 percent to 28 percent instead of the 80-20 or worse split seen in Southern states. That may sound like a minor change, but the 10-point dip in Clinton’s black support could have cost her Michigan and augurs trouble in states like Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, which hold primaries on Tuesday.

RELATED: Sanders' surprise win and Clinton's defeat: What happened in Michigan?

Sanders strategists are hoping to do Michigan all over again, but this time in Ohio, a state whose rivalry with Michigan belies their similarities. They're under no illusions they can win a majority of African-American voters, but even getting to 30 percent would be a coup that could deliver victories, given Sanders’ strength with white voters.

They're counting on young people and Sanders' anti-establishment message to get them there. And allies think Sanders can do better with black voters outside the South, where Clinton has a long history with the core Democratic voting bloc, and they think later contests have given Sanders more time to introduce himself to people who didn’t previously know him.

Clinton is currently beating Sanders by wide margins in recent Ohio polls. While there's no data on her strength with African-Americans specifically, a CNN poll found Ohio Democrats trusted her on race relations over Sanders 65 percent to 32 percent. But polls also painted a similar picture before Sanders won Michigan, and Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters this week that Ohio would be "competitive."

If Sanders succeeds in the delegate-rich state, his office in a former daycare center on the corner of East 79th Street and Central Avenue could play a key role. On the walls, there’s a photo of the candidate fist bumping rapper Killer Mike and campaign t-shirts with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” under a cartoon silhouette of Sanders’ face.

The literature on display includes a double-sided flyer (produced by volunteers, not the campaign) that states, “Hillary Clinton and her husband have supported policies which have devastated the black community.” On the back, there are photos of Sanders marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington and speaking at a meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality, with his face circled.

Nonetheless, many of the nearly dozen volunteers working the phones here white and have ventured to the office from other parts of the city, underscoring Sanders’ challenge with African-American voters.

But not all are. David Washington, a 26-year-old black East Sider, has been a political junkie since he was 12 years old, when teachers would pull The Cleveland Plain Dealer out of his hands to make him focus on schoolwork.

RELATED: Immigration turning point for Clinton and Sanders hits just before Florida primary

“We were strictly Hillary,” Washington says of his group of friends. “Mostly everyone of my friends has been saying the same thing. They were all Hillary in the beginning, but once they started seeing Bernie Sanders’ policies, and started seeing that he had a proven track record going back 40 years, it was just inevitable for them to switch sides.”

Free trade policies are at the top of many people's minds in Washington, as they are for many in Ohio, along with Sanders’ larger message of economic equality and fighting corporate power — as is Sanders’ work in the civil rights movement, support for LGBT rights in the 1980s, and current policies on criminal justice reform.

“He’s always been on the right side of history,” Washington said.

Nicole Bates, 24, said Sanders is well liked by people who have heard his message and will do well with young African-Americans. But she worried about friends who weren’t registered or seemed apathetic about voting.

“The East Side loves Bernie,” she said. “The question is whether they get out to vote.”

Ohio and Michigan have a lot in common when it comes to demographics. They have roughly identical education levels, workforce participation, unemployment rates, and median incomes. Ohio is slightly bigger and slightly whiter — 12 percent of Ohio is black, compared to 15 percent of Michigan.  

But Clinton allies in the state feel confident about the African-American vote here. She has a lock on the endorsement of virtually every elected official, including Rep. Marcia Fudge, who represents the East Side and whose political operation has been out in force. The campaign has also activated longstanding church and other more informal networks.

To overcome Clinton’s deep ties to the state, Sanders will need young African-Americans. But he has two things working against him in Ohio: One, the Republican secretary of state recently ruled that 17-year-olds who will be of voting age by the general election can no longer vote in the primary. (Sanders sued to stop that change.) Secondly, many colleges in the state will be on spring break during on Election Day, raising concerns about turnout.

Clinton has also been leaning on the success of her husband, whose popularity with African-Americans earned him the appellation of America’s first black president, and President Obama, the country’s actual first black president. She even put her Cleveland campaign office on the same square Obama put his.

Turner also took issue with that. “Secretary Clinton is wrapping herself around the president in the hopes to charm, if you will, the African-American community into voting for her, and I just really find that quite disturbing.” she said.

Citing all the negative things Clinton said about Obama in the 2008 primary, Turner said it’s disingenuous for Clinton to claim close ties to him now. “Now all of a sudden, she’s got his back. Every other word is about President Obama, President Obama, President Obama," she said. "In my mind, that is just a way for her to seduce the African-American community into voting for her. And I find that insulting, actually.”