Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is catching fire. But the Democratic presidential nominee’s long shot bid for the White House will hinge on his ability to attract African-American voters. Recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states, show him beating Hillary Clinton by 10 points and 22 points, respectively. Those states, however, have extremely small black populations.
To get a better sense of Sanders’ current standing with black voters, consider South Carolina. In this state, where the majority of the primary voters are African Americans, Clinton is ahead by 23 points and Sanders gets a chilly reception.
The reason Clinton maintains such a large lead there? A new YouGov/CBS poll shows Sanders leading Clinton in South Carolina among white voters, but Clinton having a nearly 50-point advantage among black voters. And you don’t win the South Carolina primary, the Democratic nomination or the White House unless you can attract black voters.
Clinton’s lead among black voters has little to do with her policy positions and everything to do with familiarity. Black voters have been exposed to Clinton through her time as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, and, especially, with her campaign against Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential nomination. She is well-known and well-liked—her national favorability rating (pdf) among African Americans is 80 percent.
Meanwhile, most black voters aren’t familiar with Sanders, and nearly half of those who do know of him aren’t sure how to feel about him. Taken together, this means that most black voters don’t know enough about Sanders to compare his policy platform with Clinton’s. So they do what most voters do: They stick with the candidate they know—Hillary Clinton.
Sensing the need to introduce himself to more black voters, particularly in South Carolina, Sanders spent the weekend there, delivering a speech at the historically black Benedict College. According to reports, the reception by the diverse audience was warm, but the black attendees weren’t particularly enthusiastic. Sanders ran through his policy agenda and hit on topics of importance to African Americans, such as income inequality, criminal-justice reform and the cost of attending college.
But his positions generally aren’t all that distinguishable from Clinton’s. She has also criticized income inequality, proposed a debt-free college plan and come out as a strong supporter of criminal-justice reform.
Unless Sanders can make a strong case as to how his agenda will benefit African Americans more than Clinton’s policies, he has no shot at winning the nomination or the White House. In this regard, his challenge is twofold. First, he has to convince black voters that he has the best ideas to address their concerns and that they will be a priority in a Sanders administration. Second, he needs to have black voter turnout at rates that meet or exceed the levels observed in 2008 and 2012. These are difficult goals, but not impossible. And frankly, it is the only plausible path to victory for the Democratic nominee.
This, too, is a fact not lost on Sanders. So he chose to be introduced at the historically black college by Cornel West, a gesture that was meant to serve as a sort of co-sign by a respected black academic and civil rights advocate who could verify his sincerity and authenticity. In a strategic move, Sanders was banking on the credibility of West to curry favor with black voters.
However, West was probably not the best choice for this Carolina audience. His rhetoric against President Obama has been filled with insults—like calling him a “Republican in blackface” and comparing him to George Zimmerman—that make attacks from Republicans pale in comparison. Further, it is a mismatch of the highest order to rely on a Northern nonconformist academic who abhors the first black president to win over a Southern crowd whose political history is rooted in religious traditions and the respectability politics often associated with the black church. But there is probably a reason West was chosen over more-known figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton or South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn: Clinton already has long, established relationships with those men. Sanders may have calculated that West was the best option available.
Bernie Sanders boasts a strong history of involvement in civil rights, including being arrested while protesting school segregation, defending voting rights and even being part of the March on Washington in 1963. He routinely speaks out about the extraordinarily high unemployment rate among black youth and the economic disparities facing African Americans. And though he has been targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters who have interrupted his speeches on multiple occasions, instead of lashing out, he responded by releasing a racial-justice plan and hiring a black social activist to advise his campaign.
As he gets introduced to more black voters through continuous campaigning and the upcoming nationally televised Democratic debates, Sanders may very well begin to win over a segment of the electorate with his policies.
But if he intends to beat Hillary Clinton, especially in South Carolina, he will need to do more than introduce his ideas and reform agenda to black primary voters. He will need to persuade African-American voters to take a chance on him. He must convince them that voting for Clinton will just be more of the same politics as usual and prove to them that he can beat the Republican candidate. Only after black voters warm to his campaign will his bid for the nomination have a fighting chance.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.