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Super Tuesday is Bernie Sanders’s latest test with black voters

He’s polling strongly with black voters nationally — but didn’t make a ton of gains in South Carolina.

Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters cheer him on at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 18, 2016.
Hal Yeager/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Bernie Sanders is performing well among black voters in national polls. In a national Reuters/Ipsos poll survey last week, for example, he beat Biden by 3 points among African American voters.

But in South Carolina on Saturday, Sanders did only slightly better with black voters there than he did in 2016, when he lost to Hillary Clinton in a landslide. Four years ago, Sanders came away with just 14 percent support from black voters. And according to an early Washington Post exit poll, he got 17 percent this time around, to Biden’s 61 percent.

In a primary where the ability to capture a diverse electorate is crucial to securing the nomination, the question of how well Sanders is doing with black voters could be the difference between winning and losing. Sanders has been making the case on the campaign trail that his coalition has grown broader than ever — but many critics are wondering if that is really true, especially since the field is so crowded this time around.

“The scrutiny is unfounded. Sen. Sanders is polling the highest among all the candidates nationally” among black voters, said former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a co-chair for Sanders’s campaign. “You win some and you lose some. South Carolina was worth it — we tried, and we tried really hard.”

It’s important not to overinterpret Saturday’s election. Sanders won with black voters under 30, and the results in South Carolina — though they’ve been a bellwether in the past — only capture the viewpoints of voters in one state.

“The South Carolina results certainly weren’t great for Sen. Sanders’s optics, but black voters aren’t a monolith,” says Aimee Allison, founder of She the People. “Super Tuesday is the real test — we have enormous, diverse states like California and Texas as well as states with multiracial electorates like North Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama.”

The primaries on Super Tuesday will likely offer a bit more information: The outcomes in several states could tell us a lot more about how Sanders is resonating with black voters.

Sanders sought to expand his coalition after 2016

After his overwhelming victory in Nevada in mid-February, Sanders said he “brought together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition” and that “it’s going to sweep this country.”

He won over a majority of Latino voters in Nevada in 2016 — and he was able to repeat that performance once again, picking up roughly the same proportion of backing in the state, despite the larger field. The 2020 entrance polls also show Sanders receiving 25 percent of black voters’ support to Biden’s 36 percent in the state, a slight uptick from 2016 when he received 22 percent to Clinton’s 76 percent. South Carolina, meanwhile, presented the latest test of Sanders’s efforts to continue to diversify his coalition.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 25, 2018.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

According to a New York Times report, the Sanders campaign called out his weakness with black voters after he suffered a bruising defeat in South Carolina last cycle. “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,” staffers wrote in a memo, per the Times.

The results in the state this year show some improvement amid a fractured field. These gains are likely the result of increased familiarity with Sanders, as well as the expanded outreach his campaign has committed to in the state. He’s also continued to face some of the same headwinds he did last cycle given the state’s older and more pragmatic electorate.

Among young black voters, Sanders continues to do well: In 2016, he won 52 percent of the backing of black voters under 30, according to an NBC analysis of 25 states’ exit polls. In South Carolina this year, he similarly beat Biden with this age group, winning 38 percent voter support while the former vice president won 36 percent. According to a national Washington Post-Ipsos poll this past January, 42 percent of black voters ages 18 to 34 favored Sanders, compared to 30 percent who favored Biden.

Sanders’s approach to South Carolina was markedly different this cycle.

In 2020, the Sanders campaign held more than 40 events in South Carolina with the candidate, a key change from 2016 when political observers say he treated the state as an afterthought. Additionally, the campaign has more than doubled its staff in state compared to the last cycle: 83 percent of staffers are people of color and 90 percent are from the state, according to Sanders’s South Carolina communications director Michael Wukela. Sanders’s endorsements from state officials have grown, too. He received more than 35 endorsements from state officials, compared to 2016, when he received fewer than 10.

“He continues to be competitive with younger African Americans who resonate with the call for a political revolution; their pragmatic parents will be a challenge for him,” says Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color and host of the organization’s podcast.

Growing this coalition has been a major campaign priority for Sanders. In 2020, there have been noticeable shifts in how Sanders has spoken about his policies, including a pointed attempt to frame them in a more intersectional way. While he’s still received criticism for how he’s discussed race at times, he has also more frequently — and emphatically — highlighted the impact of discriminatory policies including cash bail and redlining.

Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters attend his “Get Out the Early Vote” rally in Santa Ana, California, on February 21, 2020.
David McNew/Getty Images

“I think he got strong and very clear feedback from black voters in general, and from his black supporters in general — for not naming them in his policies,” Howard University political science professor Keneshia Grant told Vox.

Despite these changes, however, the limited gains Sanders saw in the state highlight the concern that his base didn’t grow a ton in South Carolina.

“He has been running for president for four years and he still has not been able to penetrate,” says South Carolina strategist Clay Middleton, a former adviser for both Cory Booker’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns.

We’ll know more when the dust settles after Super Tuesday

As more states vote, Sanders’s ability to build a more diverse base will become clearer.

It’s possible he does better in other places than he did in South Carolina. His strong national polls among black voters, including recent surveys when he surpassed Biden, hint at this outcome. The Intercept offered a rundown of these surveys over the weekend:

Last week, the Reuters-Ipsos poll found Sanders besting Biden by three points nationally among black voters — certainly a relevant data point when considering whether Sanders can win among black voters. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found Biden up two among black voters, while the Hill/HarrisX poll had Sanders up nine. A Morning Consult survey recently found Sanders beating Biden by five among all black primary voters, and thumping him by a 3-1 margin among black voters under 45.

But we won’t know for sure how these polls translate to actual results until more states finish voting. As the primary continues, we’ll get a better sense of whether Sanders’s strong polling with black voters is ultimately reflected in the final results.

“We have every confidence that our campaign is going to do very well in the Super Tuesday,” Turner told Vox. “We’re going to win in California; we’ve got a good chance to win in Texas; we’ve got a good chance to win North Carolina.”