What the Bernie Sanders campaign can do to rectify its lackluster ability in increasing its support among voters of color during the Democratic presidential primaries.
For some people of color who are committed supporters of Bernie Sanders‘ candidacy to become the Democratic Party’s presidential standard-bearer in 2016, it’s been a disconcerting experience observing his campaign’s less-than-stellar outreach to their racially diverse communities. Although Sanders, by far, has put out one of the most forward-thinking policies on racial justice (the other being Martin O’Malley‘s, in particular his robust criminal justice reform proposals)—a vital, important first step—that does not, however, compensate for the fact that the Vermont senator’s efforts to deepen ties to the large voting blocs of Asian-Pacific Islander, African-American, Latino, and other communities of color in the Democratic coalition have been lackluster in light of the particular challenges facing him.
Specifically, one meaningful challenge confronting Bernie Sanders, when it comes to communities of color (especially African-American voters), is that Hillary Clinton, in comparison, has deeper and longer established ties to these vital constituencies. The other challenge is that Clinton has more name recognition and known positive branding among these voters than Sanders who has represented a small, predominantly white New England state throughout his 24-year career in Washington, D.C. In light of all this, the Sanders campaign’s handling of voters of color has been frustratingly mystifying—and slow.
Now, what does this article, here, mean by “frustratingly mystifying”? Specifically, it is referring to the campaign’s seeming agreement with the assessment made by some progressive Sanders supporters who argue that he garners credibility among communities of color (in particular African-Americans) sufficiently because of his admirable long-standing history of civil rights activism going back to the 1960s as well as outlining policies that explicitly deal with (and are better at targeting) racial inequality. However, there is a critical problem with their assessment. Like other voting constituencies, credibility is gauged among communities of color by trust that arises, among other things, from building relationships and constantly maintaining familiar rapport. At the end of the day, a stellar pro-civil rights history and policies, no matter how racially progressive, are not substitutes for building relationships.
Although, Sanders has attempted to rectify this area by, for example, addressing these communities directly and focusing on their vital concerns (e.g., speaking at the Urban League and La Raza), one area that has been lacking with the Sanders campaign is its forays (or rather lack thereof) in establishing deeper, sustained direct one-on-one relationships between the campaign and these communities. To be fair, this could be a function of not having the sort of scale of organization that Hillary Clinton has, as well as the fact that the Sanders campaign is still filling out its organizational structure as it heads deeper into the primary season, that both hamstring its ability to effectively communicate its message to these prized Democratic voting blocs, in particular African-Americans. As CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson reports:
“It’s not that the message is not resonating with the African-American community, it’s that we haven’t communicated with them yet,” said Chris Covert, the South Carolina state director for Sanders’ campaign. “We have been busy building our organization and making sure that we have enough people on the ground to have those conversations.”
Nonetheless, the glaring issue of Senator Sanders and his campaign’s comparative (using Hillary Clinton as a yardstick) lack of establishing deep, sustained relationships with communities of color must be addressed, otherwise he is danger of becoming the Eugene McCarthy of 2016: a principled, straight-shooting figure who’s right on the issues important to Democrats and non-Democrats alike, but whose reach is severely limited to a few sections of the large Democratic coalition—white middle-class liberals and progressive youth—in comparison to other Democrats with a wider reach à la Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1968 primary.
So, what can be done to rectify the Sanders campaign’s rather underwhelming approach to voters of color?
First, Bernie Sanders needs to commit to an aggressive drive in personally targeting communities of color by setting up public forums, throughout key primary states, that invite minority civic leaders and local residents in such communities to have a robust, unmediated dialogue. These forums are critical for two reasons: (1) communities of color can directly address to the senator what their concerns are as well as communicating to him what areas are not being addressed by the campaign itself, and (2) allow for Sanders, himself, to directly address these communities on what he and his campaign have done, are doing, or will be doing in addressing these concerns. It is critical that the Sanders campaign, as soon as feasibly possible, set-up town hall-public forum events in cities and locales in primary states with large, diverse populations where the candidate can introduce himself directly to Asian-Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color. It would not be surprising that these events may be the first time that many people within those communities are introduced to Sanders, in a meaningful fashion, other than what they may have vaguely gleaned from the media about him, in light of the incessant 24-hour news coverage of the political primary race that’s been dominated, this past summer, by the spectacle sensationalism of Donald Trump’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s faux e-mail scandal. (On this front, at least in South Carolina, the Sanders campaign, regrettably, may be failing. The New York Times‘ Charles M. Blow recently reported the following: “Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders spoke Saturday to a half empty gymnasium at Benedict College in South Carolina. The school is historically black, but the crowd appeared to be largely white.”)
Second, the Sanders campaign must avail itself in effectively utilizing its key resources: pro-Sanders public figures and community activists who are people of color that garner tremendous respect in multiracial communities to barnstorm throughout the country in front of such audiences to explain why they believe Bernie Sanders will be a strong advocate in the White House for these voters’ particular issues of concerns. (According to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, Bernie Sanders is, positively, now shifting toward this track in South Carolina by doing the following: “The senator has emphasized his connections to black leaders in recent weeks and plans to campaign with the academic and civil rights leader Cornel West.”)
On a related note, as an extension to the second approach above, the campaign also needs to do more to increase support among a large array of prominent public figures from communities of color who have the gravitas and credibility who can best introduce Sanders to these diverse demographics as the primary season begins to pick up serious steam. This is critical to help spread the Sanders message on a wide, vast scale among voters of color as there will be significant time and geographic constraints imposed on the candidate as the primary season heads into November and onwards preventing him from feasibly introducing himself to such voters on the scale that he would like to to establish and deepen ongoing relationships with these communities. (It is this area where the Clinton campaign has a serious advantage over Sanders insofar that the time and political investment needed for the former to cultivate relationships with voters of color are not as comparatively daunting as for the latter. The reason for this, among others, is that the former secretary of state is an already familiar, known-quantity among these voters—especially among African-Americans and Latinos—with strong name recognition because of her many decades in the public limelight dating all the way back to her days as First Lady during her husband’s presidency that’s positively remembered by a significant number of people from these two voting blocs).
Third, the campaign must ramp up its efforts in targeting minority and bilingual media on a scale that is on parity with what the other Democratic primary campaigns will do. Without this parity, minority and bilingual media will be saturated by the other campaigns such that it will hamper Sanders’ attempts to reach people of color. But in order to do this, the question that needs to be addressed is the following: Will Bernie Sanders have enough campaign funds to saturate the minority and bilingual media airwaves to introduce himself and further his compelling message on a scale to what the other campaigns will be doing, in particular Hillary Clinton’s? In light of this, the fact that the Sanders campaign is refusing PAC money, however admirably principled, may not be so politically practical. As such, this refusal may need to be reassessed, especially as the primary season heats up and all the campaigns will be blitzkrieging the airwaves with their messages.
(As to the point above, it is not this article’s intention to broadly suggest that robust campaign reform and getting money out of politics are problematic. However, a liberal case can be made for the narrow point that unilaterally disarming a strong progressive candidate is politically imprudent, especially since the present campaign finance laws, despite their inadequacies, are still the legal rules that all the political campaigns, liberal or conservative, are operating within.)
Short of availing itself of PAC money, it is more than ever essential for the Sanders campaign to rev up its individual donor fundraising operation, in over-drive, in order to adequately fund the senator’s media outreach to communities of color. Failure to do so may cost Sanders from winning the media race among all the Democratic primary candidates.
Finally, the campaign must invest in building and training a vast, diverse (and bilingual) paid and volunteer army of organizers who can go directly into communities of color where they can introduce Sanders, lay out his program, and vouch for him. This is an essential element, along with the media strategy above, where the candidate, again, because of geographic and time constraints, will be unable to personally engage with voters of color at a scale necessary to compete with the already existing favorable familiarity that these groups have toward Hillary Clinton as the campaign heads into the more diverse environs of South Carolina, Nevada, New York, and California.
In sum, despite the manifest challenges facing Sanders in regard to appealing to voters of color, at least in comparison to Hillary Clinton, he can rectify—or at least mitigate—this, again, by doing the following: (1) setting up public forums directed to people of color that engage them in direct conversations with the candidate; (2) cultivate and utilize public figures, from these communities, who garner the trust and credibility such that they can make an effective case and vouch for him; (3) large-scale targeting of minority and bilingual media; and (4) building a vast, diverse army of paid and volunteer organizers. By committing to these four strategies, the Sanders campaign may have a realistic shot in making inroads with voters of color (though time is of the essence here). Failure to do so may result in 2016 being remembered as the year that Sen. Sanders became the honorable, principled Eugene McCarthy-esque candidate who valiantly advocated for compelling causes attuned to grassroots Democrats but fell short of having the opportunity to fight for them as the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.
(Photo: Top photo of Bernie Sanders and the Black Live Matters activists by Tiffany Von Arnim on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Middle photo of then-Senator Eugene McCarthy in the Cabinet Room, White House by Yoichi Okamoto [10-03-1966], courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library, White House Photo Office collection, public domain. Both photos used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)