Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential candidacy, buoyed by a national media anxious to take former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down multiple pegs, has created a lot of excitement among a particular segment of the Democratic base, but not among the coalition of white and non-white voters that delivered President Obama two consecutive victories. If Senator Sanders is hoping to change all of that, his appearance on Sunday’s This Week doesn’t figure to do the trick.
When host George Stephanopoulos asked why he performed so anemically with non-white voters in a recent poll (Sanders received just 3% support, versus Hillary Clinton’s 91%), Sanders chalked it up to a lack of “understanding” from black voters:
STEPHANOPOULOS: You also come from a state, I believe, that is about 95 percent white as well. And we have a great racial divide in this country as well. And it — a poll out this week showed how this might be affecting you and your potential race right now. It asked for support among non-whites. This was a “Wall Street Journal”/NBC News poll. It said Clinton has 91 percent, Bernie Sanders just three. How do you close that gap?
SANDERS: Well, I’ll tell you how you do that, George. You know, as somebody who has been involved in the civil rights movement for my entire adult life. I was arrested when I was a student protesting segregation of schools in Chicago, fought against segregated housing in Chicago, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the great march on Washington.
I have a long history in fighting for civil rights. I understand that many people in the African-American community may not understand that. But I think the issues that we are dealing with, combating 51 percent African-American youth unemployment, talking about the need that public colleges and universities should be tuition free, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure. These are issues that should apply to every American.
But to be honest with you, given the disparity that we’re seeing in income and wealth in this country, it applies even more to the African-American community and to the Hispanic community. And what we are going to do is make a major outreach effort to those communities, let people know my background, let people know my record, and I think we’re going to do just fine in those communities.
To be fair, Sanders’ polling deficit with non-white voters is somewhat overstated, because that 3% out of his total 15% support is exactly proportionate to his overall deficit against Hillary Clinton, who out-polls him five to one with all Democrats. His real problem is with name recognition, which amplifies his other deficits artificially.
Unfortunately, instead of pointing that out, Sanders decided to tell Stephanopoulos that black voters would love him if they just understood things better, an idea that is uncomfortably similar to the conclusion reached by the Republican Party’s infamous 2012 “autopsy report,” and an echo of the GOP’s point man on minority outreach, Rand Paul.
Sanders’ argument, that the policies he advocates for everyone should also be particularly attractive to black and Hispanic voters, is an approach that is favored by politicians who take minority votes for granted, as well as those who take for granted that they won’t get those votes. Sanders’ problem is that Hillary Clinton supports all of the policies he cites, but he has not taken up any of the issues that Hillary Clinton has used to solidify her support with the Obama coalition.This is no accident; Sanders has long emphasized winning white voters by deliberately avoiding what he considers “demographic stuff” in favor of economic issues. In a November interview with NPR, Sanders was dismissive of black and Hispanic voters’ support for the Democrats:
Well, here’s what you got. What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that’s kind of natural. You’ve got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration, and you’ve got a Hispanic community which is looking to the Democrats for help.
But that’s not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing?
Substantively, Sanders’ philosophy misses the point that many of those “demographic” issues are economic issues. For black Americans, the criminal justice and policing reforms that Hillary Clinton has advocated are directly tied to their economic well-being, or that of their close friends and relatives. And while Sanders decries the role of money in politics, the Obama coalition is much more urgently concerned with whether they’ll even be allowed to vote in the next election.
Bernie Sanders’ positions on these issues aren’t really the problem, though. Politically, he has made the calculation that focusing on those issues loses him more “white working-class” support than it would gain him among non-white voters. Since Hillary Clinton has left him little room to make inroads with the Obama coalition, this may be his best shot, but if Bernie Sanders keeps handling questions like these with fists of ham that would make Oscar Mayer blush, he’ll end up driving away what little support he has from them.