WASHINGTON – If your Facebook timeline is any indication, Bernie Sanders will be the next president of the United States. Bolstered by stronger-than-expected showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders seems sure to sweep to the Democratic nomination through the support of millions of young people and their memes.
It was not long ago that Hillary Clinton seemed destined for coronation. The former senator and secretary of state appears to be doomed to repeat her 2008 loss to Barack Obama, except this time around, she faces defeat at the hands of an old man from Vermont with hair like “Back to the Future” character Doc Brown.
Except – that’s not really the case.
“The odds are very much in Hillary’s favor,” William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said. “She’s got a huge network and campaign, and if she does well on Super Tuesday it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Bernie wins the nomination.”
Sanders’ inability to attract minority voters has been a problem, especially in the diverse Democratic electorate. And now with Super Tuesday less than a week away, is it too late for Sanders to save his campaign?
Sanders is in a situation similar to that of Clinton’s eight years ago.
It is late January 2008. Nobody has heard of Lady Gaga. People still care about “American Idol.” Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson believes the national economy is healthy and growing. And Hillary Clinton appears to be turning around her campaign for president.
Clinton had been the leader in national polls up until the Iowa caucus, but suffered a humiliating defeat there to the upstart Obama. Just when it seemed the election was slipping away, Clinton shocked pollsters with a win in New Hampshire. Could she hold the momentum through Super Tuesday?
Not really. She was crushed by the African-American vote and lost most of the South.
“The African-American vote won South Carolina for Obama,” Frey said.
Clinton was able to last through the summer of 2008 with the support of the Hispanic vote, which helped her in delegate-rich states such as California and Texas.
In last week’s Nevada caucuses, exit polls seemed to indicate that Sanders had won the Hispanic vote, but Clinton’s overwhelming victories in areas with large Hispanic populations say otherwise.
Sanders’ success in Iowa and New Hampshire is due in part to state populations that are more than 90 percent white. On Super Tuesday, only one state has a white population over 90 percent: Sanders’ home state of Vermont. Nevada and South Carolina are more indicative of the nation in terms of demographics than Iowa and New Hampshire.
Capturing the minority vote is important in both the primary and national elections. In 2012, turnout among African Americans as a percent of the population surpassed turnout among whites for the first time.
“That was a huge benchmark,” Frey said. “I don’t think the turnout will be as big [for African Americans] this time, but it will still be strong for whomever the nominee is.”
Capturing the African-American vote is especially important for Democrats, as they have a higher turnout rate than Hispanics. Hispanics are also concentrated in noncompetitive states, including California and Texas.
That is a problem for Sanders, whose crowds are very white, as indicated by their preference for Vampire Weekend, a pop band that performed at a Sanders rally in Iowa.
Last month, an Internet battle broke out between Sanders supporters and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates criticized Sanders for refusing to consider reparations for slavery. Sanders supporters in turn criticized Coates for not also bashing Clinton for refusing reparations, and claimed Sanders was the better choice for African-American voters.
Coates, 40, later said he planned to vote for Sanders. And young African-American voters, like other young voters, have shown a preference for Sanders.
“I will be voting for Sanders in my home state of Georgia,” said Leondra Head, 18, from Grenan, a small city just outside of Atlanta. She is a freshman journalism major at Hampton University in Virginia, a historically black university. “He is absolutely the better candidate for African Americans. He’s the only candidate who has spoken at HBCUs, and he actually cares about the people.”
Lauren Hendrick, 20, of Austin, Texas, is a junior journalism student at Hampton and agrees with Head.
“I’m kind of back and forth, but I’m leaning towards Bernie,” she said. “He has touched on more issues I can relate to as a college student and African American.”
Olusoji Akomolafe is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Norfolk State University, a historically black college in in Virginia. The state will also be holding its primary on March 1. He said he was undecided but that many of his students had thrown their support behind Sanders.
“I think the notion that Bernie Sanders has a ‘minority problem’ has been purposely exaggerated,” he said.
But this has done little to shift the overall feelings of of African-American voters toward the Democratic candidates. A Gallup poll released last week showed that 82 percent of African-American voters viewed Clinton favorably, while 53 percent viewed Sanders favorably.
The disagreement among different African-American age groups is likely explained by one man: Bill Clinton.
“I think, number one, they associate her with her husband,” Frey said. “He was referred to as the ‘first black president.'”
Bill Clinton received 83 percent of the African-American vote in 1992 and 84 percent in 1996. His efforts to reach out to this demographic benefited him, and now it benefits his wife, even though his reforms on crime and welfare disproportionately hurt African Americans. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed 91 percent of African Americans have a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton, the highest among any demographic group. By comparison, 83 percent of African-Americans have a favorable view of Obama.
Sanders, meanwhile, has had little interaction with African Americans outside this election. He has been a senator from Vermont since 2007, and was the state’s only House representative before that, starting in 1991. Vermont is one of the least diverse states in the nation: According to the U.S. Census, Vermont was 93 percent white in 2014, and 1.2 percent African American. (Only Montana and Idaho had smaller percentages). Before serving in Washington, Sanders was the mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, from 1981 to 1989. The city’s population in 1980 was 37,712; fewer than 1,000 were non-white.
Hillary Clinton is now reaping the benefits of her husband’s legacy and her own work with African Americans. She received an important endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus and other influential African Americans.
The Rev. James L. Graham Jr. is the senior pastor at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, Va., a Washington suburb. He said he had spent a long time considering whom to support, and decided on Clinton.
“We have to be careful of making promises we can’t keep,” he said. “While I’m an advocate for universal health care, I’m also I realist. While I’d love to see him do that, I think it’s a pipe dream.”
“When I look at all those factors, I have to lean toward Hillary Clinton.”
It is a sentiment echoed by other African Americans. According to the same recent Quinnipiac poll, 98 percent of African Americans believe Clinton has the experience to be president, while only 69 percent think Sanders does.
Sanders has received the endorsements of celebrities, including rapper Killer Mike and director/court-side trash-talker Spike Lee. But Clinton’s endorsements – including Morgan Freeman, a man who played God, Beyonce an and Kanye West – seem to only further cement Clinton’s grasp on the African-American vote, and thus the Democratic nomination.
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Donwload photos and link to graphic: Black-vote.zip