Bernie Sanders Lost the Black Vote in 2016. Will 2020 Be Any Different?

Senator Bernie Sanders spent Martin Luther King’s Birthday in South Carolina, where he spoke at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia. He won only 14 percent of the state’s black vote in the 2016 presidential primary, exit polls showed.
Travis Dove for The New York Times

Shortly after Senator Bernie Sanders suffered a crushing loss in South Carolina’s Democratic primary in 2016, his campaign’s African-American outreach team sent a memo to top campaign leaders with an urgent warning.

“The margin by which we lost the African-American vote has got to be — at the very least — cut in half or there simply is no path to victory,” the team wrote in the memo, which was reviewed by The New York Times. Mr. Sanders had won 14 percent of the black vote there compared with 86 percent for Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls.

Over seven pages, the team outlined a strategy for winning black voters that included using social media influencers and having Mr. Sanders give a major speech on discrimination in a city like St. Louis or Cincinnati.

Mr. Sanders’s inner circle did not respond.

In a campaign in which Mr. Sanders badly needed his message against inequality to catch fire with black voters, the senator from Vermont and his senior leaders struggled to prioritize and execute a winning plan to build their support. Top aides lost faith in their African-American outreach organizers, whose leadership was replaced and whose team members were scattered across the country. Initiatives like a tour of historically black colleges and universities fizzled; Mr. Sanders even missed its kickoff event.

As Mr. Sanders prepares to announce another run for the White House as early as this week, his weak track record with black voters — a vital base in the Democratic Party — could be a potential threat to his candidacy. And his campaign’s experience in 2016, as described in interviews with nearly two dozen current and former advisers and staff members, reveals a strikingly uneven commitment on the part of Mr. Sanders and his top advisers to organize and communicate effectively with black voters and leaders.

For 2016, Mr. Sanders initially put together an all-white leadership team and campaigned heavily in predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote early in the nomination process. The relationship between his inner circle and his black staff members frayed, and it is unclear if top Sanders aides were aware of the damage until it was too late.

As the primary season unfolded, Mrs. Clinton dealt Mr. Sanders a series of stinging defeats in Southern states with high black turnout, while African-American leaders repeatedly criticized the Sanders campaign for failing to understand the concerns and priorities of their constituents.

This year, Mr. Sanders is already dealing with another thorny problem involving his 2016 staff: allegations from women who say they were mistreated or harassed during the campaign. Last month, after The Times published an investigation into complaints by female staff members, Mr. Sanders publicly apologized.

The two issues could make Mr. Sanders vulnerable in a crowded and diverse Democratic primary field that includes several female and minority candidates.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Sydney Ember