Even if he defeats Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire next month, Senator Bernie Sanders faces a daunting problem when the presidential race moves on to bigger, more diverse states: winning over black voters.
Starting this weekend in South Carolina, he is trying to solve it.
With a blitz of appearances, ads on black-oriented radio stations, a tour of historically black colleges and the help of well-known and not-so-well-known African-Americans, Mr. Sanders is racing to get the word out: He is a lifelong civil rights advocate who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He talks substantively about issues vital to many blacks, like “radically rethinking police procedures,” even in front of all-white crowds. And the economic policies that he relentlessly argues would combat income inequality and injustice across the board, he says, apply all the more to persistent racial disparities in American life.
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“We have a real tragedy with youth unemployment,” Mr. Sanders thundered last weekend in Des Moines, where the only black faces in the crowd of 1,500 appeared to be those of journalists following him. “Kids who graduated high school who are white: 33 percent unemployed or underemployed. Latino: 36 percent. African-American: 51 percent.”
Mr. Sanders has been addressing his challenges with black voters for months — particularly with those who fondly remember taking a chance on another newcomer to the national stage in 2008.
“People will see,” said Kevin Williams, 50, a Charleston, S.C., hotel manager who praised Mr. Sanders’s early support for a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition. “He’s starting to connect with African-Americans. They’re feeling Bernie is a progressive we can trust.”
But his path after Iowa and New Hampshire is uncertain at best. Mrs. Clinton has a huge head start: Nationally, only 43 percent of blacks polled by Gallup over the past six weeks said they held a favorable opinion of Mr. Sanders, compared with twice as many — 86 percent — who viewed Mrs. Clinton favorably.
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And in South Carolina, where Democrats vote Feb. 27 and where the candidates will meet for another debate Sunday night, African-Americans are likely to make up more than half of the electorate. But a Monmouth University poll in November put Mrs. Clinton’s lead at 69 to 21 percent there among likely Democratic voters — and while three of four black respondents said they trusted Mrs. Clinton on issues of concern to blacks, 40 percent said that of Mr. Sanders.
And Mrs. Clinton is not standing still. Since Freddie Gray’s death after he was taken into police custody in Baltimore in April, she has been beating the drum for a criminal justice overhaul, an end to “mass incarceration” and resistance to what she calls Republican efforts to erode voting-rights laws.
Last month, in the church where the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott began, Mrs. Clinton, surrounded by civil rights luminaries including Dr. King’s youngest child, the Rev. Bernice King, was introduced as the next president. This week, the mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot to death in Florida, declared her support for Mrs. Clinton. And Eric H. Holder Jr., President Obama’s former attorney general, will campaign at her side on Saturday when she attends Representative James E. Clyburn’s yearly Democratic fish fry.
Still, Mrs. Clinton’s dominance of the black vote is no foregone conclusion. Bitter memories remain from her contentious primary with Mr. Obama in 2008, when former President Bill Clinton dismissed Mr. Obama’s victory in South Carolina by recalling that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson had won the state twice, and called Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Even minor missteps show Mrs. Clinton’s potential vulnerability in the Black Lives Matter moment, when a new generation of African-American voters is insisting on being wooed afresh. The Clinton campaign set off a small social-media uproar in December when it briefly adapted its logo to include Rosa Parks’s image; critics said it looked like an attempt to say that the iconic protester would have supported Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Sanders is betting that victories in Iowa, where he is neck-and-neck in the polls with Mrs. Clinton, and New Hampshire, where he holds a sizable lead, will instantly establish his credibility and force blacks to take him seriously. But his game plan to cut into Mrs. Clinton’s black support is multipronged and detailed.
He will bookend Sunday night’s debate with appearances in South Carolina on Saturday and Monday and in Birmingham, Ala., for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally Monday night. On Thursday, his campaign began a tour of historically black campuses, led by the scholar Cornel West, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. “People are starting to catch on,” said Hamilton Grant, a 2011 graduate of the school.
On the ground, Mr. Sanders’s field operation in South Carolina includes 53 staff members and 3,600 volunteers, aides said. And on the air, he will step up ads like one that ran on black radio stations in December: “There is no president who will fight harder to end institutional racism and reform our broken criminal justice system,” he said in it.
With Mrs. Clinton already widely popular among older black women, Mr. Sanders is turning to a group of lesser-known surrogates, among them Nina Turner, 48, a former Ohio state senator. Ms. Turner was a prominent Clinton supporter there until she got on the phone with Mr. Sanders last summer.
He promised to give his “absolute all” to help “people who have been overlooked and left out — the working poor,” Ms. Turner recalled in an interview. “He wasn’t ashamed to say that African-Americans and Hispanics are not treated fairly in the system. He said, ‘I will use my cachet as president of the United States to do something about that.’ And then he said, ‘I believe you and I are cut from the same cloth.’ And that was it. And we really are.”
Mr. Sanders also has a growing stable of hip-hop artists singing his praises, including Antwan Andre Patton, better known as Big Boi and formerly of the duo Outkast, and Killer Mike, the stage name of an Atlanta rapper whose six-part online interview with Mr. Sanders in December was widely shared online, drawing more than a million views. (Killer Mike and Mr. Sanders are reuniting Sunday for a live-streamed conversation.)
Still, Fredrick C. Harris, who directs Columbia University’s Center on African-American Politics and Society, suggested that Mr. Sanders needed to get into churches and businesses where blacks could be persuaded one on one and word of mouth could spread. “He may need to do a barbershop and salon tour,” Mr. Harris said.
What is unlikely to change, though, is Mr. Sanders’s message to black voters, which does not vary much from what he says to anyone else.
In an interview, Mr. Sanders said he tailored his speeches to a degree — addressing an oil pipeline that would cross through Iowa when he was in that state, focusing more on immigration in Nevada, given its large Hispanic population. “Different communities, obviously, have different concerns,” he said.
He also seems to adjust his delivery subtly: “Brothers and sisters,” he often begins sentences when he is before black audiences, but he did not do so in three straight days of campaign events last weekend in Iowa.
Yet his African-American supporters say they detect no insincerity.
Sylvia Brown, 61, a nurse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose union endorsed Mr. Sanders, said she got behind him over his Medicare-for-all plan but trusted him to fight for racial pay equity, too. “I think he would correct that,” she said. “He has our issues at heart. He will come through for us.”
Brittany Packnett, 31, who is active in Black Lives Matter, said that she liked that Mr. Sanders addressed issues important to blacks, but that she remained undecided. “I’m never going to be convinced by any candidate who is willing to talk about economics but not willing to talk about race in the very same sentence,” she said.
For now, Mr. Sanders has his work cut out for him in Iowa. He ends many speeches by recalling how the state helped elect the first black president, and by urging voters to make history again by starting a political revolution. “We elected a president based on his ideas, not the color of his skin,” he said in Des Moines.
Some black voters are expressing similar thoughts. “If Bernie keeps doing what he did in here, if he keeps connecting with a very diverse audience, he can impress voters like me,” said Mike Griffin, a Minnesota resident who saw Mr. Sanders in Des Moines. “If a one-term senator from Illinois, if a black guy by the name of Barack Obama can come out and win the Iowa caucus, I think it is open season.”
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