Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at the National Action Network conference on April 20, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) not only rocked the house here at the National Action Network Convention on Friday morning but also may have been the crowd favorite among politicians who’d stopped by over the past three days.

Audience members shouted, “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” as the Rev. Al Sharpton escorted him to the podium. The atmosphere had the feel of a presidential stump speech, even though he told another reporter at the conference that he hasn’t made up his mind on whether to ru in 2020.

The theme at this year’s NAN conference reflects on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago. Sanders, who was criticized for what some thought were disparaging words about former President Barack Obama at an MLK event in Jackson, Miss., earlier this month, struck a chord with the packed room here when mentioning King’s role in fighting desegregation and the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights acts:

Those were extraordinary accomplishments. And if that’s all he did in his life, he would be a person for the ages. He would be one of the outstanding leaders in the history of the United States. I’m not talking about a black leader. I’m talking about a leader in the history of the United States. As great a civil rights leader as Dr. King was, he was more than that. Dr. King was a nonviolent revolutionary who wanted to see our nation undergo a radical revolution of values, not just against the evil of Jim Crow and segregation, but against the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism.

Sanders may not be committing to a 2020 run at the moment, but in reality, he never really stopped running for the Oval Office. While some Democratic operatives bemoan the fact that he is not registered with the party, he has been its most vocal cheerleader. He barnstormed the nation with Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and, via his own political organization (Our Revolution), he has quietly helped dozens of local and state officials win primaries and general elections. Sanders may not be a Democrat, but he is the party’s most important weapon against President Donald Trump.

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Basically, he is the Democrat’s 2020 front-runner, whether he runs for president or not.

What is not clear is whether, in the event of a presidential run, he has learned anything about the shortcomings of his outreach to black voters in 2020.

While Sanders is very popular among black voters—something his supporters will remind you of at every opportunity—that didn’t translate into votes in 2016.

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He had his ass handed to him on Super Tuesday, when most black votes across the South were cast. Black voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton, his primary opponent, who eventually lost to Trump in the general election.

This reporter wrote a post-mortem assessment of Sanders’ black-voter outreach soon after he lost the primary. Some of his former presidential campaign staff said that they didn’t have the resources to compete for black votes.

But this is 2018, and Trump is president. Moreover, Trump has a legitimate shot at winning again, if he’s not removed for being a tool of the Kremlin first.

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Trump has an active support base, and its backing hasn’t abated. But Sanders has just as active a support base and one that, through Our Revolution, is more politically plugged in and could give the sitting president a run for his money ... if he does decide to run.

I wrote last year about the challenges Sanders would run into with black voters in 2020—and I think those challenges remain. His speech at NAN showed me something: that he was the most electric candidate among the other politicos who came.

Yes, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would all be formidable presidential candidates, but Sanders got the crowd going as well as, or even better than, all of them.

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He hit on a very poignant aspect of King’s legacy during his talk—the slain leader’s stance against the Vietnam War:

Let us [...] never forget this, in an act of incredible courage, Dr. King denounced the war in Vietnam. People forget about that. He demanded to know how it could be that we were spending billions of dollars killing people in Vietnam and ignoring poverty and homelessness here in the United States of America. Brothers and sisters, after 17 years of war in Afghanistan, 15 years of war in Iraq, a military budget that just increased by $165 billion over a two-year period, we will not forget what Dr. King was telling us.

The whole time Sanders spoke during his 13-minute speech, “Yaaas!” and “Hmm-mmm” could be heard following many of his points.

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Who knows how well Sanders will do with black voters if he decides to run in 2020? But if his performance at NAN means anything, it’s this: He can work a black crowd, and he is popular with black folks.

Whether that will equal votes is another story. For now, he may have been the most exciting politician at NAN who directly took on racial inequality and what that means for America.

And that’s saying a lot.