Speaking to an estimated 18,000 enthusiastic supporters who packed the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver on Saturday night, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proved that the momentum behind his campaign shows no signs of waning less than a week after shocking the nation's political and media establishment by walloping rival Hillary Clinton by 22 points in the New Hampshire primary.
"A lot has happened in nine months," Sanders told the cheering crowd after welcoming them as proof that his call for "political revolution" is clearly resonating in the state – one of the dozen that will vote on Super Tuesday on March 1.
"We started off in Iowa 40 or 50 points behind," he continued. "The results ended up a little different than that. We started out in New Hampshire 30 points down. The results came out a little different than that. We started out way behind in Nevada and South Carolina. We have a real shot at winning both of those states. And here in Colorado, with your enthusiasm, on March 1 we are going to win."
"As I gazed around the crowd seated around me and across the sea of nearly 20,000 people gather to listen to Bernie's message, I was blown away by the young people and their joy in hearing someone actually express what they already know. The system is rigged in favor of a sort of political and financial royalty of which they will never be a part." —Donna Smith, Progressive Democrats of AmericaCommon Dreams contributor Donna Smith, who also recently took over as executive director of the Progressive Democrats of America, was in the crowd for Saturday night's rally and said the electricity was palpable.
"As I gazed around the crowd seated around me and across the sea of nearly 20,000 people gather to listen to Bernie's message," she writes on Sunday, "I was blown away by the young people and their joy in hearing someone actually express what they already know. The system is rigged in favor of a sort of political and financial royalty of which they will never be a part." The event, she added, "was one of the most moving moments I can recall in my half-century of following politics and candidates."
Meanwhile, an increasing number of people with their ears to the ground in South Carolina and Nevada are reporting that the assumed advantage for Hillary Clinton in those states is cracking and that support for Sanders continues to grow as more and more people are exposed to his message. A body of evidence—some based on polling and some anecdotal—is emerging that the national energy behind his campaign is creating a growing appetite for the 'political revolution' it espouses.
On Sunday, a new CBS poll shows that Sanders has cut into Clinton's lead in South Carolina, now trailing by just 19 points with less than two weeks to go. Though still a substantial lead for the frontrunner, that is a far cry from the more than 50-point lead she once enjoyed. The poll shows Clinton leading 59 percent to 40 percent, with a margin of error of +/-8.7 percent. The latest poll showed a significant block for Sanders may still be name recognition as only 44 percent of those surveyed could say they know him "very well," compared to 70 percent who could say that of Clinton.
At the same time, new national poll by Reuters, released Friday, is the latest showing that Sanders and Clinton are running essentially neck-and-neck across the country. But with many now focused on the upcoming Nevada caucuses on Feb. 20 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27., the question has become whether or not there really exists a racial barrier, or a discernible philosophical barrier, when it comes to Sanders drawing away the early support that Clinton has enjoyed in larger, more demographically diverse states.
Not-So-Certain Victories in Nevada and South Carolina
According to MSNBC political correspondent Joy-Ann Reid—who acknowledged she went to South Carolina thinking the conventional wisdom about Clinton's so-called "firewall" of black voters would hold true—found that support for Sanders (likely assisted by his campaign's impressive political operation on the ground there) is much more broad and enthusiastic than many people have been led to believe. As Reid reported on Saturday:
"They took [black voters] for granted and underestimated Bernie’s support... They’ve now discovered there are black folks 'feeling the Bern.'" —South Carolina State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter
The Clinton campaign is betting that her vocal support for Obama and the backing of institutional players like the Congressional Black Caucus, whose political action committee endorsed her on Thursday, along with influential local black elected officials like State Sen. Marlon Kimson and church leaders will translate into turnout.
But conversations with elected officials and Democratic strategists in the state reveal little excitement over Clinton’s candidacy and a growing concern that not only are black voters not enthused, her campaign is being out-hustled by Team Sanders.
“They took [black voters] for granted and underestimated Bernie’s support,” said State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who led the fight on the House side of the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. “They’ve now discovered there are black folks ‘feeling the Bern.’”
Cobb-Hunter added that Sanders doesn’t even need to win the black vote outright to contest South Carolina.
“All he needs to do is carve off a piece of it,” she said, “because he’s got the working-class whites who don’t like Trump, he’s got the women, he’s got the young people.”
Sanders jumped from roughly 2 percent with black voters in South Carolina to around 20 percent in the polls between last summer and last month (there are no more recent statewide polls of Democrats in the state). Some veteran black politicians in the state think he could do better than that, Cobb-Hunter, who doesn’t endorse candidates as a rule, included.
And as political correspondent for the Miami Herald Jamie Self reported from Columbia, South Carolina on Sunday, the rise of the "revenge of the populists" is widely evidenced in the state:
"I’m ready for the revolution. The wealth is distributed the wrong way, and people need to start sharing." —Alice Rodriguez, South Carolina voter
Alice Rodriguez says she "used to be that person," the one who did not care about politics. But she says she cannot afford to ignore it anymore.
"I’ve gone through situations where I’ve had to decide whether to choose to go to the doctor or have food. I have to have food," said the 32-year-old Columbia substitute teacher and artist.
"I’m ready for the revolution. The wealth is distributed the wrong way, and people need to start sharing."
The populist revolution Rodriguez wants is the one U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has promised if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House — expanding everyone’s access to education, health care and higher wages, mainly by taxing corporations and the wealthy.
Testing the opinion of younger black voters in South Carolina, Reuters spoke with a number of students and other young adults and found evidence that many are very open to Sanders' plan to attack economic inequality by offering universalist policies like an increased minimum wage, expanded Medicare, and tuition-free higher education for public colleges.
"It wouldn’t be surprising if this firewall is crumbling, or whatever it is that firewalls do when they stop being firewalls." —Jim Newell, Slate
Travis Pascoe, 25, a second-year graduate student at Claflin, told Reuters that while he appreciates some of Clinton's historic focus on helping under-served communities, he said "you still need a plan" and that Sanders' plans for reducing inequality by taxing the wealthy and expanding Medicare to cover all Americans should resonate with the black community. "I think that would help the black community because we’re the least privileged," he said.
In the case of Nevada, as Jim Newell reporting at Slate on Friday suggests, the Clinton campaign may not be panicking yet, but they wouldn't be fools to be nervous or at least pretend to be nervous. "It wouldn’t be surprising if this firewall is crumbling," writes Newell, "or whatever it is that firewalls do when they stop being firewalls."
During his speech in Denver on Saturday night, Sanders said the people of Nevada "know what Wall Street’s greed, irresponsibility, recklessness, and illegal behavior did. They did it all over this country but maybe no place more profoundly in terms of wrecking lives, than right here in Nevada."
And while Clinton continues to depend on her establishment connections to bolster claims that she is the best candidate to serve the interests of African American and other minority voters (though even the CBC PAC endorsement generated its own controversy), Sanders has enjoyed a steady stream of influential black and latino voices speaking out on his behalf over the past week.
Black Voices Challenge the Clinton Establishment
Those coming out to challenge the idea that Clinton would be a better choice than Sanders included legendary artist and activists like Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte; former NAACP head Ben Jealous; prominent black intellectuals like Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, and Adolph Reed Jr.; prominent Ohio Democrat Nina Turner; both co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva; and Erica Garner, whose father Eric Garner became a household name for many black Americans after video footage showed him being choked to death by a police officer in New York in 2014.
"Bernie Sanders offers... a chance to declare unequivocally that there is in America a group of citizens who have a deep caring for where our nation goes and what it does in the process of going." —Harry BelafonteIn his video statement describing his support for Sanders as a "moral imperative," Belafonte said, "I think he represents a certain kind of truth that's not often evidenced in the course of politics." Belafonte suggested to those who have yet to make up their minds "to maybe consider and reconsider what it is that Bernie Sanders offers" which he said was "a chance to declare unequivocally that there is in America a group of citizens who have a deep caring for where our nation goes and what it does in the process of going."
Both Alexander and West wrote scathing critiques of Clinton's historical record, including her commitment to neoliberal economics and adherence to establishment thinking that has seen her tied to a corporate-centered and a militarily-hawkish mindset throughout her career.
"The battle now raging in Black America over the Clinton-Sanders election," wrote West in his endorsement on Saturday, "is principally a battle between a declining neoliberal black political and chattering class still on the decaying Clinton bandwagon (and gravy train!) and an emerging populism among black poor, working and middle class people fed up with the Clinton establishment in the Democratic Party."
Invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, West continued by saying the 2016 election "is not a mere campaign" but a "crusade to resurrect democracy—King-style—in our time. In 2016, Sanders is the one leading that crusade."
Meanwhile, in a two-part interview with the Real News Network posted on Friday, Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a fierce critic of the race-first and identity politics often injected into contemporary debates about economic inequality and class structure, explained why his support for Sanders—which includes being active on behalf of the campaign in South Carolina and elsewhere—is fueled by the unique promise his candidacy presents.
"'How is free public higher education not pertinent to black Americans? How is a $15 an hour minimum wage not pertinent to black Americans? How is expanding the public sector and jobs programs, and commitment to full employment not pertinent to black Americans?' And the response from rank-and-file black American voters is, 'Yeah, this is stuff that I want, stuff I'm concerned about.'" —Adolph Reed Jr., Univ. of Pennsylvania
"As I've gone around the country," explained Reed to TRNN's Jared Ball, "the expressions of spontaneous Bernie love from random strangers who come up — from all ages, races, genders, etc.—has been outstanding. And I've been working a lot in South Carolina, and we see the surge there, as well. Because as, as I've often said to people, when you go down the list of items on the Sanders platform, and you can ask about each one of them, 'How is this not an issue that's pertinent to black Americans? How is free public higher education not pertinent to black Americans? How is a $15 an hour minimum wage not pertinent to black Americans? How is expanding the public sector and jobs programs, and commitment to full employment not pertinent to black Americans?' And the response that I and we have been getting from rank-and-file black American voters is, 'Yeah, this is stuff that I want, stuff I'm concerned about.'"
That, said Reed, is the essential reason why he's supporting Sanders.
But in addition, Reed explained that people should recognize that Sanders has been able to uniquely execute—as results in both Iowa and New Hampshire have shown— a "serious electoral effort and challenge" that is viable while also using a "movement-building approach" to organizing. Those two things, which are "not always compatible and pretty tough to do," said Reed, have been "really exciting and key to watch."
South Carolina resident Guy Lugenbeel, a 40-year-old music DJ who spoke the to the Herald about the Sanders campaign in his state, appears to embody much of Reed's argument.
"On the left, we’re sick of not being represented in government," said Lugenbeel. "Not to hate on Barack (Obama), not to hate on Hillary Clinton, but ... when we had both houses (of Congress) and the presidency, yeah, it was hard to get stuff voted in. But I think we could have fought harder." What's exciting him about Sanders now, he said, is that "all of these things that he is doing seemed implausible six months ago."
In the end, he said, "I actually believe in this concept of a political revolution. If we’re going to have a democracy, we’re going to have to change how we keep getting money from corporate interests."
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Watch the full TRNN interview with Reed, in which he also discusses the current state of the political Left in the U.S. and his critique of those calling for reparations based on the existence of slavery and other historical examples of racially-fueled injustice, below: