How Sanders’ Vermont Career Could Hurt Him Nationally

7 minute read

For thirty-five years, Bernie Sanders has represented a state where there is one dairy cow for every five people. Twice as many licensed wildlife hunters reside in Vermont’s green hills as the national average, and they can openly holster a gun without a special permit. And there are just three people of color for every 97 whites.

Now Sanders is on his way to campaign for the Democratic nomination in Nevada and South Carolina, and he will find climes and crowds that look very different from his home state.

On issues from criminal justice reform to immigration and gun control, Sanders has held views in the past that are at odds with many non-white voters in the next two primary states. In Nevada, about 40 percent of the Democratic electorate is non-white, and in South Carolina, 55 percent of Democrats who voted in the 2008 primary were black. Many of Sanders’ votes in Congress appeal more to the Green Mountain State and its demographic cousins, Iowa and New Hampshire, than the third and fourth primary states.

“The population is much more diverse than New Hampshire or Iowa, and the people in Nevada don’t really care who those folks vote for,” U.S. Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton, said in an interview. “We don’t have many things in common with those states.”

Read More: Clinton Allies See South Carolina as Key State

Though Sanders was a civil rights activist in the early 1960s, he does not have strong ties communities of color after decades in mostly white Vermont. The Clintons, meanwhile, are well-known in South Carolina and among African-American communities after decades of campaigning and have deep roots there. Sanders’ effort to desegregate college housing and public schools in Chicago and participation in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington may not resonate with a younger generation.

“I didn’t see the picture of him standing next to Martin Luther King. He has not been the one for whom we said, ‘We have got to hear what Bernie sanders says on civil rights,’” minority leader in the South Carolina House Todd Rutherford said in an interview. “If past is prologue, we can expect a great deal more from Secretary Clinton than anyone else.”

Read More: The Radical Education of Bernie Sanders

Since beginning his presidential run, Sanders has shifted his rhetoric and his positions to appeal to a broader segment of the Democratic Party. During his 2006 campaign for Senate, Sanders appealed to Vermonters by touting his record on crime and pointing in particular to his support for the 1994 crime bill that former President Bill Clinton has been criticized for and since renounced. Sanders’ website during that race even touted his “strong record of supporting tough on crime legislation.”

But after Sanders faced criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement last year for his single-minded focus on income inequality during his presidential campaign, he began regularly calling for reforms to the criminal justice system. He blamed the tough on crime positions of the 1990s and the over-emphasis on punitive crime policies for leading to mass incarceration of blacks in the United States. “For too long in this country politicians have used getting tough on crime as a wedge issue to win elections,” Sanders said in November at a criminal justice reform forum at Allen University.

Some black voters do not believe Sanders’ message of addressing economic inequality, honed after decades in Vermont, is sufficient. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1988 with Sanders’ endorsement, said in an interview that both Sanders and Clinton needed to focus more on policies important to the black community.

“There are those who say a rising tide lifts all boats. But some came on ocean liners, and some came on yachts. We came on slave ships,” Jackson said. “Race-neutral does not resolve the issue. It’s not enough to have economic policies that are not race sensitive and gender sensitive.”

Gun control is another issue where the Clinton campaign and others have long believed Sanders is vulnerable.

In one of his most explicitly Vermont-centric moves, Sanders supported allowing firearms on the Amtrak, which snakes its way from Washington, D.C., to Boston and Burlington, Vermont. Clinton has hammered Sanders on his past stances on gun control, including that vote on Amtrak guns and repeated votes against the Brady bill, which required universal background checks. The Vermont Senator took heavy criticism from Clinton and others for voting in favor of a bill giving gun manufacturers legal immunity, legislation that the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre called the most significant legislation for gun owners in 20 years. Last month, an effort to shore up support among progressives, Sanders reversed his view on the law and he is co-sponsoring a bill to end gun manufacturer immunity.

“I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states,” Sanders said in the first Democratic deabte.

Clinton’s own shifts on gun control, immigration and criminal justice are well-documented. In 2008, her campaign distributed mailers in Indiana criticizing Barack Obama for being weak on gun rights. She supported the 1994 crime bill, too, and has talked tough on immigration in the past.

In the last two Democratic debates, Clinton has targeted Sanders for voting against a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. “I don’t think it was progressive to vote against Ted Kennedy’s immigration reform,” Clinton said in the debate last week in New Hampshire.

Sanders justified the vote at the time by saying that he was opposed to the guest worker program in the bill, which he said would bring down wages. “If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive waged down even lower than they are now,” Sanders said in a television interview in June 2007. Now, Sanders explains that he was opposed the bill because of reported mistreatment of guest workers.

His vote in 2007 turned off many Latinos. Alida Garcia, director of coalitions and policy for the immigrant activist group, said his views “stigmatizes … hard workers.”

“He’s evolved on this issue since his campaign launched, but where his prior statements have been troublesome is within his economic framework of welcoming new immigrants to our country,” Garcia said in an interview last month.

Now, Sanders has laid a comprehensive immigration reform platform, one that many immigration activists have lauded as being more detailed and far-reaching that Clinton’s. His plan includes dismantling deportation programs and detention centers and ending the quota for detention beds.

Still, Sanders will have to work to convince Latinos that he has broken from the policies of the past. “In the past Sanders has been quieter on these programs that our constituencies are concerned about,” said Javier Valdez, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant activist group. “His stance on immigration has evolved. I think he now understands he has to represent a more diverse constituency.”

Clinton is now making a hard push to attract black and Latino voters, releasing an ad on Friday that showed Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife died in the Charleston church shooting. She took a break from campaigning in New Hampshire to visit Flint, Michigan, where a heavily black community was devastated by a poisoned water system.

Sanders, for his part, released an ad featuring an endorsement from the daughter of the slain black Staten Island resident Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police officers. He is planning a heavy campaigning schedule in both Nevada and South Carolina.

His challenge will be convincing Nevadans and South Carolina that he is ready to move out of Vermont.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at