Forget all the talk about Iowa’s split vote between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. For the Democratic nomination, the 2016 presidential race really begins here in South Carolina on February 27. And that means Sanders must find a way to connect to some of the most pragmatic voters in the nation at a time when Clinton is clinging to pragmatism the way some people cling to their guns and their God.
Sanders’ strong, but not-strong-enough, showing in Iowa — garnering half the vote in a favorable state doesn’t a revolution make — can be followed up with a big win in New Hampshire and a respectable loss in Nevada. But it will be the Palmetto State that will determine whether his revolution is real or a pipe dream that will go the way of a supercharged Howard Dean.
And the reality is that he faces a daunting task in South Carolina.
Black voters will make up more than half of those who will vote in the Democratic primary, and a recent poll had Clinton dominating him in that demographic 79% to 19%. Plus, during the most recent debate in South Carolina, Clinton bear-hugged the legacy of President Barack Obama, who is extremely popular among that group, to help protect that lead.
Sanders did himself no favors with his answers about gun control to curb gun violence. His top reason for being lukewarm — he’s from a conservative, rural state where guns are part of the fabric of the culture — doesn’t hold water here because like Vermont, South Carolina is conservative and rural, and Democratic voters know there has been too much deference paid to honoring the hunter and sportsman and not enough to preventing a danger worsened by the presence of too many weapons on our streets.
Chris Covert, the South Carolina director for the Sanders campaign, told me they are trying to close the gap with Clinton by establishing deep relationships that will last long beyond any particular election cycle. He mentioned how Sanders’ black support doubled over a period of seven weeks and why he thinks that it will only continue to increase.
“I feel pretty pleased with where we are at this point,” he told me a few weeks before the votes were cast in Iowa.
“The traditional route is always to go and get as many elected officials as you can … and we’ve been blessed to get selected elected officials from across the state. But we’ve also gotten the student body presidents of two [historically black colleges and universities]; the president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina, an African-American, and 250 small black businesses. They are helping us support Bernie.”
That’s all well and good, but likely won’t put a dent in Clinton’s black support, because she has a similar but longer list. (White South Carolina Democratic voters, meanwhile, seem split between Sanders and Clinton.) If Sanders really wants to compete here, he shouldn’t come back screaming about Wall Street or pointing out that Clinton got paid to give speeches at Goldman Sachs. Even his passion for a $15 minimum wage, while welcome, is unlikely to move the needle because Clinton’s views are not far removed from his.
Instead, he should remind voters that he is a more likely heir to Martin Luther King’s vision — Sanders and King marched together and fought for a living wage for all Americans — than Clinton, who supported her husband’s push to reform welfare, which increased extreme poverty, as well as the bipartisan laws that caused the country’s incarceration rate to skyrocket, a legacy from which black families in South Carolina are still trying to recover.
Clinton — like many white and black Democrats and Republicans — has evolved from her tough-on-crime history to push for sensible criminal justice reform.
But that raises the question of whether voters should focus on her past stances on an issue that is a priority for many South Carolina primary voters or on her embrace of #BlackLivesMatter and the civil rights changes they seek? If Sanders wants to win here, he had better at least force her to explain why she was wrong then and why her evolution should be viewed as sincere today.
He should also focus on health care, because it is the one issue that pragmatic voters of South Carolina have seen pragmatism come up short. The Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s chief domestic accomplishment, has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by maybe 19 million people nationally, helped close the Medicare prescription doughnut hole, reduced the number of people struggling to pay medical bills and has improved or saved the lives of countless Americans.
But its reach has been blunted in South Carolina because it is the result of a necessary compromise. Here, its impact hasn’t been allowed to fully reach roughly a quarter of a million South Carolinians because the Supreme Court gave the state’s Republican governor and Republican-led General Assembly the option to not expand Medicaid, one they happily took.
Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator and pastor of Emanuel AME, where Dylann Roof allegedly killed him and eight other church members, was pushing hard in the General Assembly for a Medicaid expansion before he died, despite the incredible odds against it. The expansion would not only help the working poor, but create an estimated about 44,000 jobs.
That dynamic highlights one of the biggest differences between Sanders and Clinton. Sanders has proposed a revolutionary health care plan that would uproot the current system for the dream that is universal coverage. Clinton has called that unrealistic and argues that the best course of action is to strengthen and expand upon the success of the ACA.
And from a practical standpoint, her argument makes more sense.
No one paying attention to the health care debate of the past six years can deny that even a reform package built upon conservative ideas and liberal principles almost didn’t become law — and remains under attack because of the illogical state American politics finds itself. Had Democrats followed Sanders’ lead in 2010, the uninsured rate would not now be at an all-time-low. Instead, tens of thousands of Americans would likely still be dying for lack of health insurance, and the sickest among us would still be facing discrimination for the sin of being sick.
Even when there was a Democratic president and a House and Senate controlled by Democrats with massive majorities, a modest public option could not pass — despite the revisionist history some Sanders supporters are now pushing — as Clinton reminded a debate audience in Charleston.
So, on every practical level, Clinton’s vision makes the most sense on health care.
Still, in South Carolina, that entirely understandable compromise has meant that at least a quarter of million residents are going without health insurance. Pragmatism has left too many poor people behind in this state even as it has provided a lifeline for millions of others elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons the lawyer for the Walter Scott family, the black man shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer, switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders.
Ultimately, Sanders will not beat Clinton here with an impressive list of endorsements or going to churches and barbershops and black colleges. If he is to have any chance, he must remind some of the nation’s most pragmatic voters, who have deep affection for this cycle’s most pragmatic candidate, that pragmatism has deadly limits, that revolution is really possible — and that he is the right man to lead it.