Bernie Sanders is about two weeks out from one of his most tense moments on the campaign trail with African-American voters. And he’s less than 24 hours out from a primary where they will play a pivotal role.
“Can we please talk about specifically black people and reparations,” Felicia Perry, a panelist on a Minneapolis forum pointedly asked the senator from Vermont on Feb. 13.
Without missing a beat, Sanders digressed back into a version of his stump speech, a habit that plagues all politicians under the intense scrutiny of a presidential contest.
“I believe that in a country which has more income and wealth inequality, than any other country, the time is long overdue to start investing in poor countries. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth—especially within the African-American community,” Bernie rehashed.
“Say black,” someone from the crowd yelled interrupting Sanders’ familiar riff.
“I’ve said ‘black’ fifty times,” Sanders responded, visibly annoyed. “Alright, that’s the 51st time.”
Since his defiant win in New Hampshire, Sanders has tried to find a way to disrupt the foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will wipe the floor with him in states with more black voters, slowly pivoting his income inequality-based campaign into one that can also target African-Americans in a tangible way. He faces his biggest test on Saturday in South Carolina, where Clinton has maintained a steady lead of at least 20 points, and a seemingly insurmountable 65 to 28 lead among black voters according to a recent CNN poll.
Sanders’ only real chance to turn the tide before Super Tuesday is to galvanize young black voters specifically, a task which may be easier said than done. But while Sanders’ is the young person’s candidate, the kind of white-haired prophet of college dorm rooms, he may not be the young black person’s candidate yet.
“Can he articulately advocate for a racial issue even if it looks like class doesn’t have anything to do with it?” Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told The Daily Beast.
“There’s the issue of his version of progressivism that focuses on class,” Gillespie said. “While those issues can resonate with black voters, they also use their standpoint of race and race discrimination.”
This is a key distinction that Sanders has been actively trying to ameliorate, whether it’s by targeting black millennial voters in South Carolina through campaign surrogates campaign surrogates or recently going to Flint, Michigan to listen to the stories of plight from a predominately black community.
He has had to translate the broader wealth inequality framework upon which his campaign is built into a personal, resonant message for black voters without misconstruing issues of class and race.
Even though, Sanders may have run out of time in South Carolina— he’s trying to make these voters the priority going into Super Tuesday.
While there isn’t particularly consistent polling of young black voters, Sanders seems to be making gains, however marginal they may be. An NBC News poll from February 16 indicated that Clinton was still leading Sanders among black millennials 64% to 25%. Among white millennials, those numbers are entirely reversed with Sanders up 75% Clinton’s 22%. Another Reuters poll around the same time had a much more narrow margin between them among black millennials.
Roderick Adams, the Canvassing Director for Minnesota’s Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the group responsible for hosting the forum with Sanders referenced on Feb. 13, told The Daily Beast that he remains skeptical about either Democratic choice at this point.
“I think [Sanders’] reception in terms of how the black community reacted to him was lukewarm at best,” Adams said after praising the senator for even taking the time to come to the event. “At this point we are very skeptical of any politicians making promises to our community.”
“At the forum, black community members pressed Sanders to talk specifically about how he would invest in the black community and address reparations. I think a lot of people left feeling he hadn’t been specific enough in his answers. But I think since that forum his answers have been evolving.”
Adams described the dichotomy that Sanders presents to black voters which is that his message is resonant, but it’s difficult to trust anyone’s sweeping promises when they’re on a political pulpit.
“At this point we are very cynical of any politicians making promises to our community, but in that same breath I believe we are pulled in by the fact that he tells the truth on a lot of economic issues and it’s believable, his track record proves that,” Adams said of Sanders. “I’m encouraged by the fact that Sanders has been willing to have these conversations and engage on the issues, and that his positions have been evolving and improving since our forum.”
But in South Carolina the issue might simply be familiarity, as some voters in the state aren’t even entirely sure who Sanders—a relative unknown from lily-white Vermont—is. It doesn’t help that Sanders spent most of the week before the primary out of state, while Hillary Clinton,her family and high-profile surrogates like Sen. Cory Booker, have blanketed the state.
To add insult to what could be insurmountable injury, young black voters also don’t have the highest political efficacy.
“This is a really risky strategy for Sanders,” Gillespie said. “That group has the lowest propensity to go out and vote.”
Presumably that’s where the Odd Couple combination of rapper Killer Mike and activist Erica Garner, whose father was strangled to death by NYPD officers, come into play.
Garner went to South Carolina last week to get the word out for Sanders, after appearing in a powerful ad for his campaign. Interestingly enough, she did so as her grandmother Gwen Carr endorsed Clinton along with the mother of Trayvon Martin.
“As far as I have been down here, people have been feeling the Bern,” Garner said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast from the Palmetto State. She referenced Sanders’ past arrest during the Civil Rights Movement as part of the impetus for supporting him as a protest candidate, as well as the fact that they come from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Bernie’s been consistent,” Garner said after suggesting that Clinton has waffled on her support of pertinent issues to the African-American community. “Us young people need consistency.”
Sanders, somewhat ironically, supported the same 1994 crime bill that often leads people to criticize Clinton for seemingly being two-faced to African-Americans. For his part, at the time, Sanders said his support was a compromise, as the oft-criticized piece of legislation also included the Violence Against Women Act.
Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The finer minutiae of Sanders’ voting record may not be the first thing that compels people to the polls though, as young voters perceive the senator from Vermont as the antithesis to an established Washington-affiliated political operative.
But the question he needs to effectively answer in the final hours before South Carolina voters head to the polls, is a question that is pivotal to the continuation of his campaign.
“Can he articulately advocate for a racial issue even if it looks like class doesn’t have anything to do with it?” Gillespie said.
South Carolina will answer on Saturday.