Bernie Sanders’s New Coalition Put to Test in South Carolina

Bernie Sanders is investing heavily in South Carolina, visiting often and building a solid organization. But the question remains whether his newfound front-runner status and momentum will be enough to attract the coalition of minority voters he needs to do well there.

Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary will show how well Sanders can deliver on his strategy to turn things around in the key first-in-the-South state. Sanders has made nearly twice as many visits there as he did in 2016. He has hired a large, diverse staff and tailored events that lay out how his “Medicare for All” and other plans can meet the needs of black voters there.

In 2016, Sanders lost South Carolina to Hillary Clinton by a whopping 47 points. The stinging defeat there, where more than 60% of the Democratic electorate is African American, left lingering doubt about whether he could appeal to black voters.

He’s been plotting a comeback ever since.

His new strategy has paid off in gains against former Vice President Joe Biden, who has long led in South Carolina polls and is banking on a win there to turn around his struggling campaign. On the heels of Sanders’s double-digit win over Biden in Nevada, a state with a heavy concentration of Latino and black voters,polls suggest the Vermont senator is poised for at least a second-place finish in the Palmetto State.

At stake are 54 pledged delegates of the 1,991 needed to win the Democratic nomination. And analysts say being runner-up could be enough for Sanders to blunt criticism that he can’t bring black voters into his coalition.

“Even a strong second-place finish in South Carolina is a pretty good indicator for him,” said Brian Fallon, who was national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

But there are definite obstacles for the Vermont senator.

Billionaire Tom Steyer is gaining in the polls in South Carolina and is investing heavily there, including 116 paid staffers.

Representative James Clyburn — a Democratic kingmaker in the state — gave Biden a boost with his endorsement Wednesday. And Sanders may have reignited concerns that he’s too progressive by praising social programs of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Sanders, though, has one key advantage over all his rivals. He can draw on a political organization and fan base that is largely still intact from his run four years ago.

Sanders in 2016 saw early that Clinton had him out-gunned in the state, and “there was really no oxygen left in the room,” said Michael Wukela, communications director for Sanders’s 2020 South Carolina campaign. At the time, he didn’t target South Carolina and his small staff was mostly made up of out-of-state, white aides who had trouble connecting with the largely African-American electorate.

Sanders’s 2016 defeat in South Carolina was brutal across the board. Clinton captured every county in the state, buoyed by her and her husband’s strong connections among African-American voters. Blacks accounted for 61% of the voters in the Democratic primary that year, and Clinton won 86% of their vote.

This time around, Sanders has made the state a centerpiece of his strategy. In addition to three days of events there this week, he had held 60 events during 12 visits since he announced his run, Wukela said. That’s about double the number of his trips to the state in 2016.

Sanders’s paid campaign staff of about 70 is twice what he had in 2016. About 90% of them are from South Carolina and 80% of them are black or Latino, said Jessica Bright, the campaign’s South Carolina director. Four years ago, Sanders just had five endorsements in the state. Now he has 36, 32 of whom are black or Latino. Eight of the endorsers are African American members of the South Carolina state legislature.

“The investment in South Carolinians was key coming into this election cycle,” Bright said. “It gives us a diverse pool of ideas and people who know South Carolina, and who know how to message and connect with South Carolinians because we understand the issues.”

A number of Sanders’s events there that showcased how his policies can benefit black voters and those residing in the state’s rural communities.

He visited a black church in Orangeburg in May to put forth a 10-point “Thurgood Marshall plan” to revamp K-12 education and that month also held a town hall on environmental justice in Denmark, where residents are struggling with a contaminated local water supply.

In August he was in Columbia to lay out his proposed overhaul to the U.S. criminal justice system, and also visited rural Florence to talk about Medicare for All with residents who lack health coverage after the state turned down an expansion of Medicaid. At a town hall in Myrtle Beach, he spoke about how his $16 trillion climate change plan could aid a state that has seen five hurricanes since 2015.

With Biden leading by 11 points in the RealClearPolitics average in state polls, even a strong second-place showing in South Carolina could offer some momentum in advance of the Super Tuesday contests on March 3, when delegate-rich Texas and California are among 14 states that go to the polls.

On Wednesday, Sanders held rallies in North Charleston and Myrtle Beach, before similar events Thursday in Spartanburg and then Friday in Columbia.

The weekday crowds were smaller than the thousands of supporters he drew in Texas over the weekend or last week during a campaign swing on the West Coast. But Sanders projected confidence heading into Saturday’s critical balloting.

“We started off in this race 30 points behind,” Sanders said in Myrtle Beach. “We ain’t 30 points behind today. We have closed that gap and I believe that if there is a large voter turnout on Saturday — if all of you come out and vote, you bring your friends and your neighbors, your aunts and your uncles — we can win here on Saturday.”

Sanders is increasingly benefiting from the fact that a clear alternative hasn’t emerged from a crowded field that includes Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Some of them won’t meet the 15% threshold to reap delegates in many states, further giving Sanders an edge, said Robert Shrum, a former top adviser to Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News).

“Sanders has a devoted core of people and as long as the center-left candidates are dividing the center-left vote, he can accumulate at least a plurality of delegates with 35% of the vote,” said Shrum, who is now director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.

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