Democratic Primary is About to Come Down to Race


There’s a reason Bernie Sanders’ first campaign stop after New Hampshire is with Al Sharpton.

Hillary Clinton’s got until South Carolina to prove this is all a fluke. Bernie Sanders has until the end of March to prove it’s not.

If Sanders is truly going to become a Barack Obama-style Clinton-slayer of 2016, he knows he’s going to need to start racking up Obama-level support among non-white voters, and quickly, because the Democratic primary is about to come down to race.

The Sanders campaign understands this, which is why the first campaign stop after his blowout victory in New Hampshire is a breakfast meeting Wednesday with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem’s iconic Sylvia’s restaurant.

Sanders, who represents the overwhelmingly white state of Vermont in the Senate, has yet to prove he has the ability to win minority voters — a critical component of the Democratic Party coalition. He’s said he’s confident non-white voters would come to him once they heard his message — and aides consistently repeat that claim – but his close defeat in Iowa and landslide win New Hampshire, two states that are just as white as Vermont, haven’t answered any of the questions.

The next two early states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, have much larger Latino and African American populations, which means he no longer has the luxury of appealing to his base of white liberals.

“He can’t get there from here. She can win with everything he’s got,” said Joe Trippi, who faced a similar problem when he was trying to figure out the math for the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean, another Vermont liberal popular among white progressives, but one who didn’t have a primary opponent with the kind of strength among African-Americans and other minority voters that Clinton’s shown in 2008 and so far in this race.

“Once you leave New Hampshire, the Democratic Party is 44 percent non-white,” Trippi said. “What Iowa should have told everybody is that they’re probably going to dead heat each other among the 56 percent of white Democrats—and that’s probably being generous to him, because of all the conservative and moderate white Democrats elsewhere around the country.”

But if Sanders can make enough inroads by the Feb. 20 Nevada caucuses and then by the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary to come in a close second in those minority-heavy states, that’s when the Democrats who’ve dismissed the Vermont senator as a slight itch would start worrying the condition is becoming a full-on burn.

“With minority voters, African-Americans and Latinos, the main obstacle we have is they simply don’t know [Sanders]. As they get to know him, as they get to know his story, as they begin to see his message and what he stands for, I think he’s going to have a tremendous opportunity,” said chief strategist Tad Devine after Sanders’ victory Tuesday evening. “We also believe with African-Americans that Bernie Sanders’ story is enormously powerful. This is a guy who as a student at the University of Chicago set the direction of his entire life to the civil rights struggle and we think telling his story and what became of it, his fight for equality, civil rights, his fight against inequality and economic injustice is very, very powerful, and is going to resonate with the African-American community.”

Sanders has said that he plans to stick around until the convention, and new investments in television ads in Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma (all largely white states) on Tuesday sent a clear message that he has the money to fund that kind of prolonged challenge.

That still won’t be enough to take Clinton down: Sanders would need to almost run the table in the 10 caucus states that come in March and do respectably enough in the primary states, all while holding off a Clinton machine that’ll be pulling out all the stops.

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