Can Bernie Sanders win over centrist black voters?

Sen. Bernie Sanders' second-place finish in South Carolina, by a wide margin, reveals his ongoing struggle to appeal to black voters. His campaign needs to "attract people from more than one corner of the Earth," says one critic. 

Susan Walsh/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives to speak during a campaign rally in Springfield, Virginia, on Feb. 29, 2020. Mr. Sanders finished second in the South Carolina primary after former Vice President Joe Biden who won 64% of the black vote.

Bernie Sanders' presidential ambitions were undone in 2016 when he couldn't line up enough support from black voters to win the Democratic nomination. As he tries again in 2020, results from South Carolina suggest he's still struggling to appeal to the voters who make up the backbone of the Democratic Party.

Former Vice President Joe Biden won 64% of African American voters in South Carolina, compared to just 14% who sided with Mr. Sanders, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of more than 1,400 voters in the state's Democratic primary.

There were also warning signs among younger voters of color on whom Mr. Sanders has relied to offset older voters who were expected to support Mr. Biden. Black voters under 45 were roughly split between Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, a sign that the Vermont senator's following among younger voters had limits. Mr. Sanders held on to voters under 30 overall.

In the four years since Hillary Clinton defeated him by 47 percentage points in South Carolina, Mr. Sanders has focused on building relationships with black leaders and voters. He frequently speaks of a multi-racial coalition that will help him win the nomination and the White House. But some black leaders say Mr. Sanders will struggle to build support if his campaign remains focused on hard-line progressive issues such as single-payer health care.

"This is not an extreme left-wing party, and, if we're going to win, you're going to have to be able to attract people to you from more than one corner of the Earth," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking black member of Congress.

Mr. Clyburn endorsed Mr. Biden in the final days before his home state's primary, backing that some black voters said was influential in their decision to vote for the former vice president.

Mr. Sanders has proven he can win voters of color. He scored a resounding victory in the Nevada caucuses with support from Latino voters.

His next test comes on Tuesday when voters go to the polls in 14 states. Several states, including Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, have substantial populations of black voters. Other states that vote on Tuesday, including California and Texas, have large numbers of Latinos as well.

Mr. Sanders was the only leading presidential candidate who didn't attend ceremonies on Sunday in Selma, Alabama, commemorating a pivotal march during the 1960s civil rights movement. But he has spent the past several years working to strengthen his relationship with minorities.

Like a lot of Democratic presidential candidates, Mr. Sanders has prioritized visits to historically black colleges and universities. He's also promised to overhaul a "racist" federal criminal justice system that he says unfairly targets black Americans and punishes them and other minorities much harsher than whites.

Mr. Sanders has courted activists, hoping to win their endorsements. He visited Goldsboro, North Carolina, last week to meet the Rev. William Barber and address a gathering at his Greenleaf Christian Church.

"The measurable difference between how Senator Sanders is doing, especially anecdotally, than what he was doing in 2016 – his endorsements are one measure of that," said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is a co-chairwoman of Mr. Sanders' campaign and one of his highest-profile African American supporters.

"People – when he is around, they respond to him in the same way, and it's not about how they identify," Ms. Turner said. "It's that they identify him as the person who has the vision that they need to make their lives better."

Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, which has endorsed Mr. Sanders, said Mr. Sanders has gone out of his way to woo black activists and reverse perceptions from 2016.

"He has done the work," Ms. Epps-Addison said. "Our network has been very critical of Sen. Sanders, particularly on issues of race, in the past. But he has sat with folks, he has built a movement."

She added that Sanders has won the support of "folks who have dedicated their lives to the liberation of black people in the United States, and they are surrounding Sen. Sanders and saying: 'This is our campaign because we have real power in this movement.'"

Mr. Sanders' top advisers acknowledge that his standing with black Americans will have to improve if their candidate is going to win the Democratic nomination, much less defeat President Donald Trump in November. Ms. Clinton's failure to secure turnout among African Americans in 2016 at the levels that helped carry President Barack Obama to reelection four years prior was a key factor in her defeat.

But Mr. Sanders' campaign also points to polling in some early states and nationally that shows Mr. Sanders appealing to young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Mr. Sanders himself advanced that argument the day after the South Carolina primary, saying, "Biden did very well last night. But we did win among younger African Americans."

"I think if you look at the national polling, in some cases we are beating him nationally and certainly among younger people," Mr. Sanders said on ABC's "This Week." That followed Mr. Sanders taking a subtle shot at Mr. Biden during a rally Saturday night in Virginia, when he declared that "old-fashioned politics, the same old, same old type of politics that doesn't excite anybody, that doesn't energize anybody."

Older voters of all races tend to vote in much higher numbers than their younger counterparts, which is why Mr. Sanders has stressed for weeks that he'll need record voter turnout to prevail in November – should he make it through the primary.

"I'm a 50-year-old black woman, and I tend to be middle of the road. I don't veer too far to either side, but I'm voting what I think is best for all of us, not just me," said Dalhi Myers, a councilwoman from Richland County in South Carolina, who switched her backing from Mr. Biden to Mr. Sanders earlier this year. "I think what's best for all of us is electrifying enough people ... who will go to the polls."

Many of Mr. Sanders' arguments for broad-based reform – including a complete revamp of the nation's health care system – may seem extreme to someone who, like Ms. Myers, considers herself more of a centrist. But, to Ms. Myers, defeating Mr. Trump, with the knowledge that sweeping structural changes would need to make their way through Congress in order to be implemented, should win the day.

"I'm not a left-wing liberal. I'm not even a left-wing Democrat," Ms. Myers said. "But I am a realist."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Will Weissert reported from Washington. AP writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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