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Bernie Sanders speaks before a packed crowd in Charleston, South Carolina in August. (Photo: Bernie 2016)

Facing South, Bernie Sanders Ramps Up Outreach in SC and Beyond

David is rising against Goliath, with a grassroots campaign meant to increase Sanders' exposure among minority voters in the Bible Belt and across the South.

Deirdre Fulton

Bernie Sanders has a plan. 

Though polls in the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire show the Democratic presidential candidate surging ahead of his main rival, former front-runner Hillary Clinton, Sanders is lagging in the American South. A recent YouGov/CBS News poll showed Clinton with a 23-point lead on Sanders in South Carolina; a survey by Public Policy Polling earlier this month in the same state had Clinton with 54 percent to 24 percent for Joe Biden and 9 percent for Sanders.

"This is the worst performance we've found for Sanders anywhere in quite a long time," wrote the polling organization, "but it speaks to his continued difficulty with African American voters. He gets only 3% with them—well behind Clinton's 59% and Biden's 27%—and in a state where a majority of Democratic voters are black that makes it hard for him to do very well."

Indeed, as Michael Tesler wrote in the Washington Post this week, "the South Carolina poll results are probably more important for understanding how the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination will play out next year."

And Clinton knows it. The New York Times reported on September 5 that the Clinton campaign was "methodically building a political firewall across the South in hopes of effectively locking up the Democratic nomination in March regardless of any early setbacks in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary."

So David is rising against Goliath, with a grassroots campaign meant to increase Sanders' exposure among minority voters in the Bible Belt and across the South.

The Sanders campaign "plans to pour resources into South Carolina to improve his standing with black voters in the state," The Hill reported Friday:

"We’re hiring half the state of South Carolina. Unemployment will go down," quipped a campaign official. "We’re going to mount a very strong grassroots campaign and have young African-Americans knocking on doors in African-American communities."
If the experiment proves successful in South Carolina, the campaign will next target Georgia, which has a relatively young and educated black electorate.
The Sanders campaign points to survey data showing their candidate fairing better among black voters in California and believe his traction in that state is more representative of his potential appeal in minority communities.

"We have an agenda that makes sense to all Americans, but to be honest with you, it makes more sense for the African-American community because of the economic problems facing that community in terms of higher unemployment, lower wages, a harder time sending their kids to college," Sanders said Saturday in South Carolina. "I believe once the African-American community becomes familiar with it, there will be a lot of support."

In another prong of this strategy, Sanders recently sat down for separate meetings with members of both the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Alongside high-profile CBC lawmakers, Sanders on Thursday introduced the 'Justice Is Not For Sale Act,' aimed at reforming what he describes as the country's "broken criminal justice system," which disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic people.

There are hints that this strategy will pay off. Already Sanders's platform of economic and social justice has resonated with civil rights activist and intellectual Dr. Cornel West, who endorsed the populist candidate in August. West accompanied Sanders during last weekend's swing through South Carolina, introducing him to a racially mixed crowd of almost 1,000 people in the gymnasium of Benedict College, a historically black institution, as "a brother of integrity and honesty and decency."

West told USA Today on Sunday: "I think that we’re going to be in for some surprises in the black community in South Carolina."

Sanders is far from the only candidate focusing his attention southward. Eleven GOP hopefuls will be in South Carolina on Friday for an event with the Heritage Action for America super PAC that's "meant for displaying their conservative credentials," as The Hill reports.

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