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

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
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.

Why? Because over 70 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters (61 percent of whom are African American) want a president who will continue President Barack Obama’s policies. Over the last several months, Clinton has been hugging Obama so tight that Michelle is giving her side eye. Sanders, on the other hand, has consistently said that he wants to move further left than Obama’s policies, something only 19 percent of South Carolina voters supported.


At the core, the Sanders campaign did an excellent job of reaching out to African-American voters. They just didn’t like what he had to say. His focus on economic justice resonates, but clearly African-American voters don’t believe that he can accomplish his goals. Further, as many have argued, he seems to be only recently interested in the fate of African-American voters.

Is this fixable? Possibly. The Sanders campaign will have to be careful that white liberal supporters don’t continue to alienate black voters with suggestions that “they don’t know what’s good for them,” and he’ll have to remember that demonstrating policy is just as important as talking about it.


Sanders and Clinton are being vetted by black voters harder than any Democratic candidates since the 1960s (and that includes Obama), so showing up four months out with a few out-of-state endorsements wasn’t enough for Sanders to break through.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has already started to move on from attacking (or, really, pummeling) rivals like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to focus on Clinton. Saturday night, after a sound beating of Sanders, Clinton also pivoted to general-election rhetoric, calling out Trump by his slogan and gearing up for battle.


With Saturday’s results, it’s not a question of whether Bernie Sanders will drop out of the race; it’s a matter of when. Sanders’ share of the vote has decreased in every single category—whites, women, young people, African Americans and every other demographic group—from the Nevada caucus to South Carolina. If he doesn’t win several of the 12 Super Tuesday states, or at least stay within a reasonable delegate margin by keeping Clinton from running up the score, this race may have all but ended in the Palmetto State.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.