How Bernie Went From Surviving to Thriving In South Carolina

Sam Brodey
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

COLUMBIA, South Carolina—Four years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) went into South Carolina’s primary with unexpected momentum—and marched right into oblivion. Hillary Clinton beat him in the primary by 50 points, a blowout that exposed the serious limitations of his candidacy thanks to the state’s status as the Democratic primary’s de facto barometer of support from black voters.

This time around, Sanders is facing similar questions about his ability to put together a winning coalition that could power him to victory over President Trump in November. And getting through the first-in-the-South primary and on to Super Tuesday with a respectable result had long been toward the higher end of expectations for the Vermont senator.

But after racking up wins in the early New Hampshire and Nevada contests, Sanders is coming into South Carolina hot. Several polls have shown him, and the billionaire investor Tom Steyer, eating into the declining support for former Vice President Joe Biden, the long-established frontrunner here.

At a rally in a downtown Columbia park on a brisk, windy Friday afternoon, the crowd—sizable, but modest by Sanders standards—cheered when their candidate thundered that they would be victorious in South Carolina on Saturday. 

Even Sanders’ most die-hard supporters aren’t so sure that’ll come to pass. They are, however, increasingly hopeful that he could do more than simply survive Saturday, but exceed expectations and prove that his coalition of support is broader than his detractors say it is. A close result, they believe, would slam the door shut on any Biden comeback, and bring Sanders a big step closer to being the party’s presumptive nominee.

If Sanders does pull it off, a big reason why could be support from younger, black voters—many of whom liked the democratic socialist in 2016 but weren’t yet old enough to cast a vote for him. 

One of them, Roosevelt Perry, was in the crowd for Sanders’ Columbia rally.  A student at South Carolina State University, a historically black institution, Perry became a Sanders fan in 2016 because of his advocacy of Medicare for All and canceling student loan debt. 

Several younger, black voters described their efforts to get their parents and other relatives on the Sanders train—but their success has proven spotty. Perry, who was wearing a light-blue Bernie T-shirt with the outline of his home state, lamented that his parents were squarely in Biden’s camp, despite his best efforts to convince them otherwise. “They’re older,” he told The Daily Beast. “They support what they know.”

Mike Gee, a South Carolina native who lives in Washington, D.C., said after lots of effort, he persuaded his parents to back Sanders in Saturday’s primary. “After long conversations, they came around,” said Gee. “To be frank, Biden has huge black support—for what reason, I can’t pinpoint.”

And some older black voters have come to the Sanders camp on their own because of the impact of Trump’s presidency on their lives. A 72-year old retired professor who introduced himself as Tom said that he didn’t support Sanders in the 2016 primary—but found himself volunteering for Sanders’ South Carolina campaign because of how bad the last three years have been.

“Things have changed for me because of Trump,” said Tom. Sanders, he added, “can go toe-to-toe with him.”

There are Democrats, however, who remain doubtful that this kind of movement will translate into a meaningful boost for Sanders’ prospects to win over South Carolina—or the national black vote more generally. 

The state’s Democratic primary electorate is 60 percent black; in 2016, Sanders pulled 26 percent of the primary vote share compared to Clinton’s 74 percent. The county with the highest share of black residents also happened to be the county with Clinton’s largest margin of victory—82 points. 

Surveys of the Democratic primary in South Carolina had, for months, found Biden with a commanding lead. The earliest polls in spring 2019 found the former veep leading by as much as 61 points, and while he’s still ahead in the poll averages, recent surveys show Sanders has made it much closer. A Marist College poll from Feb. 24 found Sanders trailing Biden here by one point.

Any serious cutting of Biden’s margin when the results come in Saturday night would be a huge statement of Sanders’ support, said Michael Wukela, the communications director for Sanders’ South Carolina campaign. 

“That’s a statement… because four years ago, the narrative was Sen. Sanders does not resonate with black and brown voters. A strong performance in South Carolina, coupled with the win in Nevada, and that narrative’s done. Done.”

“I want to pretend that we’re gonna blow everyone away, or that we’re necessarily going to win,” continued Wukela, “but we’re gonna surprise a whole lot of people.”

But Sanders hasn’t really grown his coalition since then, according to one Democratic operative in the state, and his prospects to increase his vote share are complicated by the fact that he’s competing with several viable candidates, not one. 

“The people who supported Bernie then are the people who support Bernie now,” the operative, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the race, told The Daily Beast. “They've been working hard, they've knocked on a lot of doors and all, but I think his floor and his ceiling are very close.”

“If it comes out that every time he goes into the states with large black populations—not only do you need to get a chunk of black votes, you actually need to win the black vote, in some state,” the operative continued. “That's a necessity to be a front-runner that has a shot at becoming the president.”

The Sanders campaign has been making a greater effort to win over voters in South Carolina this year, several longtime supporters said, describing what they perceived as a more concerted and strategic effort in the state. He has visited frequently and, as of mid-January, had the second-largest paid staff in South Carolina, trailing only Steyer. 

On Thursday, The Daily Beast joined two volunteer canvassers for the Sanders campaign as they knocked doors in a quiet neighborhood north of Columbia home to mostly black residents. One of the volunteers, an Arizona software industry worker named Matt Cordes, took vacation time to fly out to South Carolina and help the campaign because he felt Sanders had a real shot to win the state—and possibly cement his dominance of the primary field. 

Their door-knocking efforts yielded several Sanders supporters, one Biden supporter, and many undecided voters who said they were making their minds up between the two. One of the Sanders backers, a 68-year old retiree named Marion Harrison, said she believed Sanders was the candidate to defeat Trump and was working hard to compete in South Carolina. “Bernie is doing all he can do,” said Harrison. 

For Friday’s rally—Sanders’ last in South Carolina before primary day—Sanders was introduced by the campaign’s most high-profile black supporters: former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, the actor Danny Glover, the rapper Killer Mike, and several state lawmakers. 

However it shakes out, the South Carolina voters who did support Sanders in 2016 do feel like they have something new on their side: company.

“The overall movement is so much bigger this time,” said Mary Dahm, a nurse in her fifties who described herself as a 25-year fan of Sanders’—a self-described “old-time Bernie Bro”—before his Columbia rally. 

“The ‘us’ is there this time.” 

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