Why Bernie Sanders Is Struggling With Black Voters in South Carolina

6 minute read

To understand why Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is not in meltdown mode after an indecisive tie in Iowa and a blowout in New Hampshire, it’s important to take a look at her rival’s crowds.

Here in Charleston, S.C., as Bernie Sanders rallied his supporters on Tuesday, the audience was almost entirely white. It’s simply impossible to win the state’s Democratic primary with only white voters. If 2008’s primary electorate is any hint, white voters will be in the minority when Democrats vote on Feb. 27.

Sanders made the cursory nod to the civil rights movement here in this deeply Southern city. But he largely stuck to his standard fare: Wall Street and super PACs are bad, corporate greed is evil and a populist revolution is afoot.

“Together, we’re going to create an economy that works for working families … not just the 1%,” Sanders said. “What does that mean? That means in America, someone who works 40 hours a week should not live in poverty.”

That rhetoric has often brought crowds to their feet, and delivered him a victory in New Hampshire. But his crowd Tuesday afternoon simply does not look like a winning coalition he would need if he is to win this state.

To be sure, it’s one event in one room in one city during a daytime event. People who can set aside a few hours in the middle of a workday tend to be older voters, salaried professionals or self-employed individuals. Many were retired or students.

But the scene reflected a poll released during the same hour. CNN finds Clinton leading among black voters, 65% to 28%, in South Carolina. White voters tilt to Sanders, 54% to 40%, but they are likely to be outnumbered.

Sanders urged his supporters to keep their optimism. “We were 50 points behind in the polls, and we ended up with a virtual tie,” Sanders said of Iowa. “In New Hampshire, we were 30 points down and we won. I am almost embarrassed to tell you how far behind we are here.” CNN had no such shame. Overall, Clinton leads Sanders in the state 56% to 38%.

“People say Bernie Sanders cannot win here in South Carolina. His ideas are too radical,” Sanders said of himself. “I don’t believe that. I believe that in South Carolina and all across this country, people are saying enough is enough.”

Some black voters are indeed feeling the Bern.

“Right now, I’m leaning toward Bernie,” said Robina Hartwell, a 65-year-old Democrat from Charleston who attended the Sanders rally. Like many fellow African Americans, she voted for Bill Clinton. But she’s not quite sold on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Not so much,” she says of her affinity for a second Clinton White House.

But will enough African-American voters join her in backing Sanders? “We’ll see, won’t we,” she says.

The campaign is aware of the challenges. “When I call black voters, they don’t know Bernie,” said Carol Martin, a 69-year-old Sanders volunteer from Mount Pleasant. When she’s at the campaign offices, around other Bernie backers, she has hope that they might narrow the gap against Clinton. “When I leave and go into the real world, that energy fades a little,” she said. “In the real world, I have a tough time finding people who agree with me.”

It’s cases like this that show Sanders’ pathway to the nomination is anything but easy, despite strong early state showings. Sanders has yet to prove he can connect with minority voters, and while he is making efforts, he faces an uphill battle among a voting bloc that still holds tremendous affinity for former President Bill Clinton.

Then there’s Sanders himself. He’s not a natural politician and his message sometimes feels crafted to lose votes, not win them. The self-described democratic socialist promotes ideas he knows are, in his own words, “radical,” and he has the tendency to stumble on local issues. For instance, he has strong words for the Walton Family that founded Walmart, saying they benefit from corporate welfare and should be ashamed of themselves. In South Carolina, the company has 31,000 employees at 111 stores. The Waltons help those families pay rent.

His efforts at minority outreach can also sound vague and halfhearted. Take his attempt to shoehorn himself into Clinton’s message of the day about criminal-justice reform: “We are assembled here today because we are fighting Establishment politics and we are fighting Establishment politics. We know that this great country can be much more,” he said. “Change only comes when millions of people look around them and say this is wrong. Racism is wrong. Sexism is wrong. Phobia is wrong.”

In Harlem, the former Secretary of State showed that she’s just better at talking about race than Sanders.

“We still need to face the painful reality that African Americans are three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage,” she said. “Just imagine if white kids were 500% more likely to die of asthma than black kids. Imagine if a white baby in South Carolina were twice as likely to die before her first birthday than an African-American baby. These inequities are wrong but they’re also immoral.”

Clinton was announcing a $2 billion plan to hire social workers and staff for school districts nationwide in an attempt to tamp down on black students’ school-suspension rates and end the “school to prison” pipeline. In a jab to Sanders’ efforts to make inroads with black voters, she said, “You can’t start building relationships a few weeks before a vote.”

“Race plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind,” she said. “Anyone asking for your vote has a responsibility to grapple with this reality.”

Sanders’ reality, with a little less than two weeks from South Carolina’s primary, is that he isn’t winning these voters the way Clinton is. Voters here have decades of familiarity with the Clintons, for better or for worse. With Sanders, they’re just getting to know him. Perhaps he is simply meeting the wrong ones.

— With additional reporting by Sam Frizell/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott / Charleston, S.C. at philip.elliott@time.com