Sanders must expand appeal to black voters

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders takes a selfie with a woman who attended a rally at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Rob Brown)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke Saturday to a half-empty gymnasium at Benedict College in South Carolina. The school is historically black, but the crowd appeared to be largely white. This underscores the severe challenge facing the Sanders campaign: African-American voters have yet to fully connect to the man and the message.

An August Gallup Poll found that Hillary Clinton’s favorability among African-Americans was 80 percent, while Sanders’ was 23 percent. Two-thirds of blacks were unfamiliar with Sanders. This could pose a problem after the contests in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has surged to tie or best Clinton, give way to contests in Southern states with much more sizable black populations.

South Carolina will be the first test. According to The New York Times, 55 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were black in 2008. Yet current polls show Clinton with a massive lead over Sanders in the state.

And those polls show Vice President Joe Biden leading Sanders, even though Biden has yet to announce whether he’ll run. That’s why it’s important not only for Sanders to spend more time in the state, but also to pick a venue like Benedict College. But appearing at the college, a favorite speaking spot for Democratic primary candidates trying to boost their black vote in the state, is by no means a sure path to victory.

Bill Bradley spoke there in 2000 when running against Al Gore. Gore crushed Bradley with 92 percent of the caucus vote. Carol Moseley Braun announced her candidacy there in 2003 but had to withdraw before the primary in the state. Al Sharpton and Wesley Clark spoke at the school in 2004, and both lost the state. In 2008, Clinton visited the school the day before the primary. She only won one county in the state. Sanders is hoping for better.

There is an earnest, if snappy, aura to Sanders that is laudable and refreshing. One doesn’t sense the stench of ambition or the revolting unctuousness of incessant calculation. There is an idealistic crusader in the man, possibly to the point of being quixotic, but at least it doesn’t come off as corrupted by money or power or the God complex that so often attends those in pursuit of the seat behind the Resolute Desk.

Sanders’ message of revolutionary change to save a flailing middle class and challenge the sprawling influence of what he calls “the billionaire class” has struck a nerve with a fervid following.

I spoke with Sanders by phone about his campaign’s need to reach more African-American voters, and I asked if he was worried about this need to broaden his appeal. While he resisted the word “worried,” he did acknowledge that: “Clearly, if we are going to do well nationally, it’s absolutely imperative that we aggressively reach out and bring the African-American community and the Latino community into our campaign, and that is exactly what we’re working on right now.”

Sanders seemed to understand the challenge ahead of him. He has to win the African-Americans who supported Obama and do so against Clinton’s enormous name identification and the deep connections the Clinton machine has built in the state. And then there’s Biden.

But Sanders’ ability to win Obama supporters may have been made difficult by his associations. On Saturday, he campaigned with Dr. Cornel West, who recently issued an endorsement of Sanders. West’s critique of the president has been so blistering and unyielding — he has called Obama “counterfeit” and the “black face of the American empire” — that it has bordered on petulance and self-parody.

In June, the campaign issued a press release, “Sanders’ Agenda for America Helps Minorities,” that touted his civil rights record as well as including economic remedies like raising the minimum wage and providing tuition-free college.

I asked him if he believes that the coverage he has gotten has been fair and equitable. Rather than complaining about the quantity of coverage, he complained about the quality, what he called “the soap opera aspect of politics.” He explained: “So if I go up on a stage and I slip on a banana peel, do you think that will make the front page of the paper? Will it be on CNN? Probably will. Meanwhile, I have talked in 20 different speeches that 51 percent of young African-American kids are unemployed and underemployed. Do you know how much coverage that’s gotten? How much?”

He answered: “Every single speech that I give I talk about that. I don’t know that it’s made the newspapers yet.”

Well actually, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have published articles that included essentially that statistic from Sanders.

But, I guess I get his point: He needs more — more quality and quantity to reach this essential audience.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.