The Battle Between Sanders and Clinton for Black Voters Keeps Getting More Intense

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Bernie Sanders Meets With Al Sharpton In New York
Bernie Sanders's post–New Hampshire courtship of Al Sharpton was just the most conspicuous of his campaign's efforts to reach into one of Hillary Clinton's strongest constituencies.Photo: Andrew Renneisen/2016 Getty Images

Well before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the plot that we now see unfolding in the Democratic presidential nominating contest was already pretty obvious: Even if Bernie Sanders won both states, he would still have to show he was capable for the first time in his career (representing very pale Vermont) that he could win over a significant share of the African-American and Latino electorate. The first demographic was obviously key to Barack Obama’s 2008 nomination victory; the second was actually a 2008 stronghold for Hillary Clinton. Scattered early polling of states like South Carolina (supplemented by some national polling) suggested minority voters could serve as a “firewall” for Clinton even if things did not turn out well in the first two states. 

Things certainly did not turn out well for Clinton in New Hampshire, and amid considerable talk about Sanders expanding his reach into new (if still white) demographic areas in the Granite State, Job One in Bernie-land is obviously achieving some sort of breakthrough among minority voters. Without that happening, in fact, he could soon be relegated to the ranks of early-state liberal-insurgent candidates who excited activists but failed when more diverse Democratic primaries took place. 

Sanders’s outreach to African-Americans has come in three forms. The first, already more or less accomplished, was to adjust his economic-heavy message to acknowledge the urgency of racial-justice issues that cannot be entirely reduced to dollars and cents. The second was to extend his remarkably successful appeal to young voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to young black voters and opinion leaders. Endorsements from hip-hop artists and prominent black intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates have been central to that approach. There’s some limited polling evidence that young African-Americans are significantly more open to the Bern than their older counterparts. 

But the third approach, which is now really beginning to gain steam, is an increasingly blunt assertion by Sanders supporters that voting for Hillary Clinton is bad for African-Americans, and it rewards her and her husband for reactionary policies that especially affected black folks, most notably the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 welfare-reform law. This more aggressive posture is exemplified by Michelle Alexander’s indictment in the Sanders-supporting magazine The Nation, with its evocative headline “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”

This last and abrasive line of attack, with its suggestion that black support for HRC is not just a mistake but a self-betrayal, seems to have spurred a backlash. One example is the accusation by New York Times columnist Charles Blow that Sanders supporters are “Bernie-splaining” why black voters are misguided in hewing to the Clintons:

[S]upport for Clinton, particular among African-American voters, is for some perplexing and for others irritating.

I cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me on social media that they don’t understand this support. “Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?” the argument generally goes. But from there, it can lead to a comparison between Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to an assertion that Sanders is the Barack Obama that we really wanted and needed; to an exasperated “black people are voting against their interests” stance.

If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood — now and over their lifetimes — they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.

But the most politically salient reaction to the Sanders drive is coming from the very large number of African-American elected officials and other opinion leaders who are already in Clinton’s camp. And so we have today’s news that the Congressional Black Caucus is formally endorsing HRC via its political action committee. It was not a tough call for the group, as the CBC PAC chairman, Representative Gregory Meeks, made clear:

Meeks said that 90 percent of the 20-member board of the CBC’s PAC voted to endorse Clinton, while none of the board members voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders and a few members abstained because they had not yet endorsed in the race.

There’s one name on the abstention list that is particularly important:

On the neutral list was Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the No. 3 House Democratic leader and the most prominent South Carolina Democrat, who has since then said he is considering backing a candidate and that candidate, he suggested, is likely to be Clinton.

That was certainly my intention,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post of his initial plan to remain neutral. “But I am re-evaluating that. I really am having serious conversations with my family members.”

And that leads to the first big test of Sanders’s drive for African-American support, the South Carolina primary on February 27. The last published survey of South Carolina with racial crosstabs made available, from a CBS News/YouGov tracking poll about three weeks ago (i.e., before all of the Iowa/New Hampshire publicity), showed Clinton leading among African-Americans by a 76–22 margin — and among all voters 60–38. It will be interesting to see as post–New Hampshire polls come out whether those numbers have moved.

Actually, the first test of the two candidates’ minority appeal could come earlier, in the Nevada caucuses on February 20. The state has significant African-American and Latino populations (the latter community has gotten far less attention in the debate over Sanders’s appeal to minority voters), but the caucuses are mostly a murky battle of organizations in a state without a lot of nomination-contest history. Indeed, Clinton’s ace in the hole there is less minority support than the experience and personal investment of her campaign manager, Robby Mook, in the event; he ran her 2008 caucus campaign there, which narrowly upset Obama in the popular vote (although Obama wound up with more convention delegates). 

For all involved, it will probably be a relief when the preferences of minority voters can be assessed through vote counts rather than endorsements and counter-endorsements and wars of words. If the Sanders surge extends to African-Americans and Latinos, then for the first time it will be rational to consider him a possible if not probable Democratic nominee. And if Clinton’s minority “firewall” holds, she’ll once again rightly be considered the front-runner as the delegate totals pile up.