Bernie Sanders, down by double digits in the polls, made his final pitch to South Carolina voters Friday on why they should choose him over Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary.
Speaking before a small but enthusiastic crowd at Claflin University, an historically black institution, a hoarse-voiced Sanders acknowledged that he’s playing catch-up in South Carolina, a state where he trails by an average of 24 points in recent polls.
“When we came here in South Carolina, we knew very few people; that’s the simple truth,” he said. “And the very first polls ... had us at like 5 percent, 7 percent. In the last nine months, we have come a very long way because of your support, and we appreciate it very much.”
About an hour before Sanders spoke at Claflin, Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, held her own get-out-the-vote event across the street at South Carolina State University, another historically black school.
Sanders took a jab at the former secretary of state, saying that she supported former President Bill Clinton’s overhaul of the nation’s welfare system when she was first lady.
“The idea behind it was poor people were ripping of the welfare system,” he said. “The end result of that legislation was that extreme poverty – I’m talking about the poorest of the poor. I’m talking about children who are hungry – the rates doubled because of that legislation. I vigorously opposed that legislation. Secretary Clinton supported that legislation, and that’s an important difference between us.”
South Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have been a battleground for the Sanders and Clinton campaigns ahead of Saturday’s primary.
Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, was hoping that large numbers of young minority students would flock to his political platform, which includes free tuition for students at public colleges, efforts to stem income inequality and increased scrutiny of Wall Street financial institutions.
But Sanders has apparently been unable to make a significant dent in Clinton’s support among the state’s African-American voters, who accounted for 55 percent of the Democratic electorate eight years ago.
An Emerson poll showed Clinton with the backing of 71 percent of African Americans surveyed, compared with 25 percent for Sanders.
“He was absolutely not known by black voters,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor. “They are faithful Democrats. He wasn’t even a Democrat. He was alien to them.”
Kevin Alexander Gray, a South Carolina activist and author of “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics,” said some of Sanders’ wounds were self-inflicted.
“Sanders had been in Congress for 30 years, but hasn’t developed meaningful relationships with many black elected officials,” Gray said. “The way he’s approached South Carolina is largely to bring in outside black, northern intellectuals…. This isn’t a serious bottom-up strategy to get to where people in the community really are.”
Still, Sanders said this week that he wasn’t giving up on South Carolina, despite his sporadic presence in the state.
He relied on a handful of surrogates, including his wife, Jane Sanders, to speak on his behalf. Rapper Killer Mike stumped for Sanders at black barber and beauty shops in Columbia on Friday.
The independent senator from Vermont won’t be in South Carolina when the polls close. He’ll be campaigning in Rochester, Minn., ahead of that state’s March 1 Democratic caucus. Minnesota is one of 13 states and U.S. territories to hold primaries on March 1.
Sanders’ long odds in the Palmetto State didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of some Claflin students who attended Friday’s rally.
“I’m just feeling the energy right now,” said Natasha Coleman, 23, a Claflin criminal justice major. “He’s coming to an HBCU, supporting us – he’s getting young people involved.”
Briana Williams, a 20-year-old Claflin psychology major from Sumter, S.C., said, “I like Bernie,” but she added: “South Carolina is history.”