With Populist Agenda Resonating, Will Black Voters Surge for Sanders?

Sen. Bernie Sanders takes part in a march in Columbia, South Carolina in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo: Ken Thomas/AP)

With Populist Agenda Resonating, Will Black Voters Surge for Sanders?

Killer Mike told reporters that the mood on the streets has changed: "Neighbors that were telling me 90 days ago, 'I don't have a choice but to vote for Hillary' are now putting Sanders signs in their yard."

With the final Democratic debate on Sunday putting South Carolina in the spotlight, the question once again rises: Will Bernie Sanders be able to rally black voters there, and across the U.S.?

With its upcoming February 27 Democratic primary, the South Carolina contest is "increasingly seen within the Clinton camp as an essential buttress against the senator for Vermont's insurgency," the Guardian's Ed Pilkington reported on Monday.

While Sanders is either closing the gap or running ahead of frontrunner Hillary Clinton in both national polls as well as key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, surveys of African Americans in South Carolina and elsewhere have consistently favored the former Secretary of State.

When asked Sunday about his lagging support from black voters, Sanders responded: "When the African American community becomes familiar with my Congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice--just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African American community, so will the Latino community."

The notion that Sanders' message will eventually reach and resonate with black voters is one that has been echoed by his supporters, including Dr. Cornel West, who on Sunday joined the senator in a live-streamed discussion on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I was sitting in church today, Mother Emanuel Church, and we were reading the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and it just makes you shake and quiver," West said. "And I said to myself, 'This is what the Sanders campaign is about. This is what it's about. It's about the poor, working people. It's about keeping track of the weak and the vulnerable. It's about mustering the courage to tell the truth about Wall Street, about wealth inequality.'"

Rapper Killer Mike, who has stumped for Sanders and also took part in Sunday's conversation, said that these positions are beginning to reach the black community--thanks in part to a sizable effort by the Sanders campaign.

When asked by reporters why the senator isn't closing the black voter gap, Killer Mike answered: "I don't think that's true. I'm not a fancy guy-- I don't get polls delivered to me every morning. What I do is I get up, I get up get outside my door and talk to my neighbors in my community. Neighbors that were telling me 90 days ago, 'I don't have a choice but to vote for Hillary' are now putting Sanders campaign [signs] in their yard."

Much has been made about Clinton's support from black voters and endorsements from prominent leaders including former Attorney General Eric Holder, who said this weekend that she was the best candidate "to protect the Obama legacy."

But as the New York Times recently reported, Sanders' "game plan to cut into Mrs. Clinton's black support is multipronged and detailed":

He will bookend Sunday night's debate with appearances in South Carolina on Saturday and Monday and in Birmingham, Ala., for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally Monday night. On Thursday, his campaign began a tour of historically black campuses, led by the scholar Cornel West, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. "People are starting to catch on," said Hamilton Grant, a 2011 graduate of the school.

On the ground, Mr. Sanders's field operation in South Carolina includes 53 staff members and 3,600 volunteers, aides said. And on the air, he will step up ads like one that ran on black radio stations in December: "There is no president who will fight harder to end institutional racism and reform our broken criminal justice system," he said in it.

Among the pillars of his campaign, Sanders supporters also point to his Medicare-for-All healthcare plan, a call for free higher public education, efforts to reinstate the Voting Rights Act, his support for a $15 minimum wage, a demand for paid parental leave, and his plan to abolish the privatized prison system as key issues for the black community.

Early campaign interruptions by Black Lives Matter activists have also pushed the senator to readjust his policy platforms to even more directly address racial justice issues, including police violence against people of color and what he describes as a discriminatory War on Drugs.

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