Bernie Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire primary and his close second place finish in the Iowa caucuses prove only one thing: he can win in states that are overwhelming white. In Nevada, he came in behind Hillary Clinton; but in the polling, Sanders did better than expected among the state’s Latinos and its rather smaller group of black voters. His performance in the South Carolina Democratic primary, which takes place on February 27th, will tell us whether he can win in states that have large African-American communities.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for any Democrat to win the nomination without winning the black vote. Although Under-30s, single women, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other nameable demographic groups are starting to form core Democratic constituencies, African-Americans remain the most solid block of support in the party. And as the Republican Party becomes increasingly white—especially in the South—the black vote is more essential than ever in determining the outcome of Democratic primaries.
Senator Sanders has little cause to celebrate his early primary performances and every reason to worry about his prospects in the ones that lay ahead of him. While Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by a healthy margin in New Hampshire, blacks constitute only 1.5% of that state’s population. In South Carolina that number stands at 30%. Hillary Clinton’s nearly thirty point lead in the Palmetto State owes to the fact that she is outperforming the Vermont senator 74-14 among black Democratic voters.
The story is similar in other parts of the South. He faces serious challenges in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia on March 1st: so called Super Tuesday.
It is nevertheless possible for Bernie Sanders to win the black vote, despite the tightly scheduled primary contest and the rather gloomy demographic statistics. Black people don’t know Bernie that well. He has never run a national campaign; and as a senator from Vermont, he has never had to deal directly with issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans. He is making up for that by recruiting leading black politicians, clergymen, and civil rights activists. Three black South Carolina state senators have endorsed him. He also has the support of Professor Cornel West, Representative Keith Ellison, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, and Erica Garner; and they all act as surrogates for the self-proclaimed socialist.
The senator seems keenly aware of his lack of support among black voters and his campaign has been very good about getting his black surrogates on cable news shows. Will this scramble lead to a win in South Carolina? It is doubtful. However, if he loses by only a few points or is otherwise able to show a considerable surge of support in the African-American community, then he has a real shot at winning the nomination.
His atheism and democratic socialism have been described by some as features that are likely to work against him with black voters. These observers, some of whom are black, seem to conflate white Christians and black Christians and to forget the history of social justice movements in America.
While it is true that blacks constitute one of the most religious demographic groups in the country, there is no evidence that faith, and matters related to it, heavily informs their voting decisions. Many black voters are instinctively conservative when it comes to social issues, but they do not prioritize these when it comes to choosing a candidate for public office. The 20th century saw as many black secularists as black preachers inspire African-Americans into becoming politically active. Before the liberal-Christian led civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s there was the socialist-secularist led civil rights movement of the 30s and 40s, which had a number of black intellectuals, artists, and community and trade union organizers at its head.
It is safe to say that if Bernie Sanders is able to get black people to hear his ideas on sentencing reform, policing reform, jobs, education, the minimum wage, wage stagnation, voting rights, and black small business ownership, then his lack of religious faith and his ideological convictions will be of little weight in the remaining primary elections.
For Senator Sanders to gain momentum in the black community he will have to win over some of the institutional support already enjoyed by the Clintons. More importantly, he will have to build up his own base of young, educated, politically-savvy African-Americans who can organize and mobilize online; and who know their neighborhoods well enough to go to houses of worship, barbershops, and community centers to make the case for his candidacy.
At present, the odds are against Bernie Sanders winning the black vote. If he is to beat them, he must put the needs and concerns of black people at the center of his campaign.
Chris Reid was born in Washington, D.C. and brought up in upstate New York and Atlanta. He served as a Naval Officer, management consultant, and university instructor. His work has appeared in Suite 101 and TSB Magazine. His first novel, Tea with Maureen, was published in October 2015. Read his blog at www.writing-reid.net.