Is Clinton capitalizing on Bernie Sanders's 'black problem'?

Could Sen. Bernie Sanders's populist campaign be undone by a lack of support from black communities?

Dominick Reuter/Reuters
Vermont Senator and US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, August 1.

For Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is a campaign obstacle she didn't see coming: a surprisingly formidable opponent in the 2016 Democratic primary race who happens to be a media darling, fundraising powerhouse, and bona fide progressive who excites a Democratic base disillusioned by President Obama.

So how does the once-presumed 2016 frontrunner, Mrs. Clinton, go after a dark-horse candidate who appears to have disrupted her direct path to the nomination?

To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, it's race, stupid.

Which is exactly what Hillary Clinton hinted at it in a July 23 conversation with Jamie Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

"This [Black Lives Matter movement] is fueled in large measure by young people and it is a particular development in the civil rights movement that deserves our support," Clinton said. "By that I mean, there are some who say, 'Well racism is a result of economic inequality.' I don't believe that."

"They are asking us to face these hard questions and shame on us if we don't do just that," Clinton added.

Clinton was taking a swipe at Senator Sanders by echoing the frustrations of many Black Lives Matter activists, that for the Vermont politician, race is nothing more than an economic matter.

Like a true socialist, Sanders does indeed tend to view most issues as economic matters, and he has repeatedly claimed that the key to fighting racial injustice and disparities is raising wages and increasing opportunities for employment.

He infamously made that argument at a Netroots Nation appearance in July when he was heckled for answering questions about race by pivoting to the economy.

After Sanders attempted to placate voters by reminding them of his participation in the 1963 March on Washington, a point that for many, rang hollow, the hashtag #BernieSoBlack caught fire, a knock on the candidate whose home state is 95 percent white.

In fact, #BernieSoBlack has become a catchphrase encapsulating the Vermont senator's greatest weakness. His campaign staff has acknowledged that race is a blind spot for Sanders, and he is virtually unknown in many black communities which comprise an important Democratic constituency.

“We’re reaching out, but it’s no secret that Bernie represents a state that is heavily Caucasian, and his decades of work on issues of importance to African-Americans aren’t known amid the national conversation on race that is underway,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager told The New York Times.

"Sanders has a long way to go with African-American voters," Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who is black, told CNN. "He does get credit for talking about economic inequality but there is much more to it than that."

For Clinton, Sanders's missteps on race could spell the difference between a candidate who drains away her votes and one who is simply a passing nuisance.

A June 22 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 95 percent of nonwhite Democratic voters said they could see themselves supporting Clinton for the nomination, support Clinton is working hard to cement, the Times reported. Only about one-quarter of respondents said they could see themselves voting for Sanders.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Clinton's support among blacks is eroding, but still high: some 66 percent of black voters have a positive view of her, compared to 15 percent who do not.

“She’s talking about the issues we care about,” said Mr. Sellers, who is supporting Clinton. “Whether it’s voting rights or police reform, Hillary is attacking them head-on.”

The perception of Sanders is markedly different.

“The Bernie Sanders voter is still a Volvo-driving, financially comfortable liberal who is pretty much white,” Paul Maslin, a pollster who worked for the 2004 presidential campaign of Vermont’s last Democratic contender, Howard Dean, told the Times. “I don’t see how Bernie takes large numbers of black voters away from Hillary Clinton, and he needs to if he wants any shot at the nomination.”

Sanders, who led sit-ins as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, protested segregated campus housing at the University of Chicago as a student activist, and yes, participated in the 1963 march where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, has tried to make strides on race.

"We need to simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is disproportionately hurting communities of color," Sanders said at the National Urban League annual conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week. "We have to solve both of these problems."

But it may be too little too late.

“I’m not hearing Bernie Sanders’s name at the barbershops," Sellers said.

Which is why Clinton may be hoping Sanders goes the way of Gary Hart and Howard Dean, past Democratic candidates with popular populist agendas who, because they failed to attract the black vote, ultimately fizzled out.

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