After his big win in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders headed south to his native New York and Sylvia’s, the legendary Harlem soul food restaurant that often serves as the backdrop for presidential candidates looking for the photo-op that will resonate with African American voters. Sanders had breakfast with the Reverend Al Sharpton, the prominent, and, sometimes controversial, black civil-rights leader.
Hillary Clinton has checked in with Sharpton, too. But the Sanders-Sharpton meet-up signals the Vermont senator’s awareness of one big obstacle on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination: African Americans do not know him well—and in Democratic primary contests that hinges on this vital block of voters, a candidate’s stature can prove decisive.
It is a political truism that given the choice between a Democrat or a Republican candidate for president, black voters invariably vote blue. African Americans have been reliable Democrats since the early 20th century. The election of 1936 sent Franklin Roosevelt back to the White House for a second term, and blacks turned out in force to help put him there, a first for a Democratic presidential candidate.
Harry Truman also got a good share of the black vote in 1948, thanks to his support for civil rights and specific moves like desegregating the military. But the numbers of black voters identifying as Democrats skyrocketed after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, in a Democratic presidential primary, electoral success can rest on a different set of factors. So far, in 2016, Hillary has the edge. “Clinton’s biggest asset among African American voters is familiarity,” Andra Gillespie, an Emory University associate professor of African American politics explains. “She’s a known political commodity.”
Terrell Starr, a New York City-based freelance reporter covering Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail, agrees. “Brand recognition is everything,” he says. “People like to go with what they know.”
According to a February 2-3 Public Policy Polling survey of 517 Democratic primary voters, 82 percent of African American voters support Hillary Clinton. She also enjoyed a 79 percent favorability rating; Bernie Sanders’s rating hovered below 30 percent.
What many black voters like about Hillary Clinton is Bill Clinton. According to Gillespie, voters who remember the economic boom of the 1990s credit the 42nd president for that period of prosperity. “By association, they think Clinton can replicate what her husband did,” she says.
But some critics lambaste Clinton for supporting her husband’s policies. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The tough-on-crime policies received broad support from both conservatives and liberals, but today those measures have been blamed for the high rates of incarceration among black people.
The former first lady voiced support for the law, and she is now getting more flak from progressives about that stance than Sanders, who voted for the plan as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Nevertheless, powerful black leaders like Representative John Lewis and influential organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, have endorsed her.
Others, like Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP president, and Harry Belafonte, the veteran civil-rights activist, have thrown their support to Sanders.
Yet Sanders could make inroads with black voters on criminal justice issues, according to Gillespie. “Sanders could tap into people who are highly critical of the Clinton legacy,” she says.
The former secretary of state has the Obama legacy to tap into as well. She has been a passionate defender of the president. But her former boss has not made an endorsement. Although speculation is rife in the media that his post-New Hampshire primary “poisonous political climate” speech was a discreet nod to Clinton, press secretary Josh Earnest has pushed back on the idea.
Although Black Lives Matter groups have declined to endorse a presidential candidate, some relatives of police brutality victims support Clinton, including Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being put in a chokehold by a white New York City police officer. (A generational divide may exist among black voters, too: Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner, endorsed Bernie Sanders.)
But simply having sympathetic or well-known surrogates won’t tip the race one way or another. “I want to dispel this idea that just because you get a bunch of surrogates, people are going to follow them lockstep,” says Gillespie. “In 1984, most of the black establishment followed Walter Mondale instead of Jesse Jackson.”
No voting bloc is monolithic, and the differences between black voters who support Clinton and those who support Sanders are vast. “A black Clinton supporter might think that she’s better positioned to act because of her experience,” Gillespie explains. “She can bring the right people to the table and help craft a policy—even though she probably won’t be perfect.”
Sanders’s black supporters, however, might be suspicious of Clinton because of her husband’s record on crime. “They wouldn’t trust her, so they’re willing to take a chance on Sanders—they’re coming from a more ideological place.”
Starr, the freelance reporter, argues that for black voters who do not have an opinion about Bernie Sanders, the real question is “How do white progressive politics appeal to me?” Much of Sanders’s popularity stems from his ability to point to the devastating economic inequality that plagues American society. “He’s very good at economic inequality, but many [black] people feel he’s not making a cultural and emotional connection,” says Starr.
Sanders’s tendency to focus on economic issues while letting racial problems fall to the wayside bubbled to the surface at Netroots Nation, the largest annual gathering of progressives, held last year in Phoenix.
After Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a presidential town hall forum, Sanders, who had shared the stage with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, left and canceled the rest of his meetings for the day, including one with protesters and black leaders.
Shortly after the Netroots gaffe, Sanders tapped Symone Sanders (no relation), a young black female criminal justice reform advocate as his national press secretary. She integrated racial inequality themes into his speeches and helped prepare position papers on criminal justice reform and police brutality designed to appeal to black voters.
The Sanders campaign also launched a tour of historically black colleges and universities, including Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.
The South Carolina primary will be the first true test of this new Sanders campaign strategy. According to a February 14-15 Public Policy Polling survey of 525 Democratic South Carolina voters, Clinton leads Sanders 55 percent to 34 percent.
But the demographic breakdown illustrates the quandary for Sanders: Among white voters, the two candidates are tied at 46 percent. Among black voters, Clinton has a substantial lead over Sanders, 63 percent to just 23 percent.