3rd-Degree ‘Bern’: Can Sanders Bounce Back From SC?

He lost the black vote big time. Not a good sign.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Mayo Civic Center on Feb. 27, 2016, in Rochester, Minn.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Mayo Civic Center on Feb. 27, 2016, in Rochester, Minn. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders needs more people. Preferably African-American people who live in the South.

But after he was routed by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, it looks like the numbers aren’t on his side. Sanders lost the African-American vote to Clinton by an incredible 86 percent to 14 percent. To put this in context, he did worse than Clinton did with black voters in 2008 (19 percent), and he did worse than John Edwards (who received 36 percent of the black vote), John Kerry (32 percent) and even the Rev. Al Sharpton (19 percent) in the 2004 Democratic primary. The last time a Democratic candidate got beaten that badly among black voters in South Carolina and still went on to win the nomination was Michael Dukakis way back in 1988, when South Carolina held a caucus and not a primary.

A Sanders win in the Palmetto State was always a long shot. Every poll predicted that Clinton would beat Sanders, but there was some hope that he would put a dent in Clinton’s lock on the black vote. But that hope was dashed when she administered a political beatdown so bloody that Ryan Coogler would have left it on the cutting room floor. As of publication, with over 98 percent of South Carolina precincts reporting, Clinton is steamrolling over Sanders 74 percent to 26 percent and will win the majority of the delegates. The question now is, what can Sanders do to survive his third-degree “Bern”?  

Bring ’Em Out

The Sanders campaign has always banked on getting young voters out to the polls and increasing turnout as a way to counter Clinton’s 20-plus-year relationships in several primary states. That didn’t happen in the 2016 South Carolina primary and actually hasn’t been happening across the board during the Democratic contests thus far. The turnout among Democrats in South Carolina was 359,066 in 2016, certainly higher than turnout in 2004 but nowhere close to the tsunami of support that occurred in 2008, where turnout reached 532,469 voters.

If Sanders has any chance of competing across the remaining Southern states, he has to get higher turnout, especially among African-American voters. This is actually a lesson for both Democratic candidates, because on the Republican side, turnout in South Carolina jumped from 445,677 in 2008 to 737,924 in 2016.

SC Democratic Primary 2016 Total Percentage
Hillary Clinton 234,396 74.13%
Bernie Sanders 80,044 25.31%
SC Democratic Primary 2008 Total Percentage
Barack Obama 294,898 55.42%
Hillary Clinton 140,990 26.49%

African-American turnout is the engine that drives the Democratic Party in national elections, and thus, the candidate with the best chance of attracting and turning out African-American voters represents the Democrats’ best chance to win the White House again. In 2008 and 2012, not only did the African-American vote increase as a percentage of the electorate, but African-American women also voted at a higher percentage than any other demographic group. This breaks down to about 2 million more voters across America, and made the difference in 2008 when Ohio, Florida and Virginia went for Obama.

Sanders visited historically black colleges. He campaigned with director Spike Lee, rapper Killer Mike and professor Cornel West. He even diversified his campaign team. Meanwhile, for almost two weeks, Clinton was battered with viral articles about her policy choices in the 1990s, her questionable use of racialized terminology and her overall fitness as a candidate. Yet African-American voters emphatically voted for her over Sanders.