WASHINGTON — Pauline Brown said she nearly broke down in tears when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders walked through her front door last month. Her longtime partner, Eugene Smith, said he stood in disbelief.
They’d had little success getting South Carolina leaders to pay attention to the dirty water in their city of Denmark, so they never expected anyone running for president to show up to see for himself.
“A presidential candidate that comes to your house to see how you’re living, I just couldn’t believe it,” Smith told The State on Thursday. “It meant a whole lot to both of us. For over 10 years, nobody believed us. It was astounding to him.”
On his May 18 trip to Denmark — where less than 4,000 people live in rural Bamberg County — Sanders moved on from his visit with Brown and Smith to speak at a larger campaign event. There, the Independent senator from Vermont promised as president he would make the country’s water infrastructure a priority. He said he’d even sign a law ensuring safe drinking water for every American — and he’d name it in Brown’s honor. A week later, Sanders returned to deliver cases of bottled water to Denmark residents.
Sanders is not the only 2020 Democratic hopeful to make the beleaguered town a key stop in the Palmetto State.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., stumped in Denmark in April soon after announcing his candidacy and he, too, delivered cases of water to the community. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, recently spoke at Voorhees College, Denmark’s historically black private college.
Sanders’ outreach there, however, does signal a more aggressive campaign style than the one South Carolinians saw in 2016, when Hillary Clinton crushed him in the S.C. Democratic primary and became the party’s nominee.
Three years ago, many voters were left with the stark impression Sanders didn’t take South Carolina seriously, or might have intentionally spent more time and resources elsewhere at the expense of winning the state’s critical early primary election.
Sanders’ staunchest allies disagree and are loath to suggest their candidate is now trying to make up from the last time around.
“I want to make it clear: it’s not that Bernie didn’t care about South Carolina in 2016,” said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, who originally endorsed Clinton in 2016 but ultimately switched over to Sanders and is endorsing him again.
Instead, Sanders’ S.C. ground game had “issues” three years ago that “had nothing to do with him as a candidate and everything to do with campaign structure,” Bamberg said. “This go-around, the structure of his campaign has improved significantly.”
There are clear signs that Sanders is doing things differently after tanking in 2016.
For one, his ground game is different.
Sanders has been to South Carolina 22 times since the year began and has locked in 21 local early endorsements, including from nine black state legislators from across the state, including Berkeley, Charleston, Hampton and Richland counties — a number far higher than his line of endorsements in 2016.
His grassroots campaign strategy is to turn S.C. supporters into door-knockers in their own neighborhoods, rather than assigning volunteers — including out-of-state supporters in 2016 — to canvass communities with which they aren’t familiar. That strategy has helped amass 22,000 in-state volunteers as of May, according to Michael Wukela, Sanders’ S.C. communications director.
The campaign also has assigned former Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Sanders 2020 co-chair and one of the candidate’s most prominent surrogates, to make South Carolina her “adopted home” during this primary season. She said she has traveled to the state nearly every month to forge relationships with civic leaders and lay the groundwork for Sanders’ subsequent visits.
These efforts may be paying off. Recent national polling in South Carolina now puts Sanders in second place out of more than two dozen candidates, trailing only President Barack Obama’s former vice president, Joe Biden, considered the most competitive contender in the field so far.
And heading into the 2020 campaign, Sanders also is finding a different environment: an open field in South Carolina.
When he came to the state in 2015, three months after announcing his candidacy, S.C. Democrats were pretty much locked in for Clinton; they had been before she announced her own candidacy.
Once Sanders entered the race, he didn’t have the money or the resources to compete with Clinton’s visibility, or her ties to the community.
“The Clinton campaign was so established and so tied in, you knocked on 10 doors and nine of them had already decided they’re supporting Clinton, and that’s all they have to say about that and there’s no way in,” said Wukela, a veteran S.C. Democratic operative who was unaffiliated during the 2016 primary.
State Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, who is serving as a senior adviser on the Sanders campaign, described it as the “Clinton-cloud.”
People just didn’t know Sanders when they voted in the 2016 primary, his supporters insist.
“A senator from Vermont — that says it all,” Turner said. “He had a heavier mountain to climb in terms of name recognition.”
Bamberg agreed: “In South Carolina, people have to know you (to vote for you). Otherwise, you’re getting steamrolled.”
Jim Clyburn, the U.S. House Majority Whip and the state’s senior Democrat, noted in an interview three years ago that black voters — who make up the majority of the state’s Democratic primary electorate — in particular are “basically traditionalists. They’re people who tend to stay with whom and what they know.”
This made it hard for someone like Sanders to break through in 2016, when the alternative was Clinton, who had a long history working within the black community, Clyburn explained at the time.
Today, Sanders’ name recognition is not the issue. He has spent the years between presidential campaigns trying to stay relevant, traveling around the country giving speeches on his signature issues and endorsing Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterms.
He returned to South Carolina last fall for a Medicare for All rally organized by Our Revolution S.C., the state’s chapter of the national pro-Sanders organization that also didn’t take a break from activism after the 2016 campaign. He addressed thousands of South Carolinians at the annual King Day at the Dome, months before announcing his 2020 candidacy.
This has given him a bigger platform now, in South Carolina and elsewhere, said Turner.
“People get the mission now,” she explained. “This run, it’s time for people to understand the man and why he believes so deeply in this mission.”
Sanders’ outreach to Denmark residents is another sign of a shift in strategy.
Criticized in 2016 for not forging meaningful connections with S.C. communities, Sanders has made it a priority this time to meet and speak with South Carolinians there who say their fight for better water has fallen on deaf ears in their own state.
At the explicit advice of his senior team, Sanders has also been working to more deliberately tie his calls for economic equality to the need for racial justice, campaign co-chair and U.S. Rep Ro Khanna, D-Calif., confirmed. This could help his message resonate more deeply with black voters who make up the majority of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate.
The more that Sanders, now 77, can link his policies to his personal experiences — a white man who fought for civil rights — the better, said Bamberg, a civil rights attorney who says he and his brother were two of just four biracial children growing up in Bamberg County.
“You can say you’re going to fight for social, environmental, racial, economic justice,” Bamberg said. “But it means a lot more to me to also have someone not just saying it but who has done it and has dedicated their life to it.”
“I see a more aggressive Bernie in this campaign,” said state Rep. Leon Howard, a Richland Democrat who chairs the state House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs and was impressed by the candidate’s health care policies this time around. “Bernie really believes he can win it. I don’t know if he thought he could do it before. I just see a different level of energy.”
Sanders’ challenge will be making this case to voters with two black candidates in the “top tier” of the race — Booker and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who has localized her race by aligning herself with education advocates — and as Biden is considered a favorite of older African Americans.
Ultimately, the winner of the S.C. primary will be the one who gets the majority of the black vote. However, it could be the case that nobody comes out of the primary with a decisive mandate.
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Kyle Kondik, managing director of Sabato’s Crystal Ball — a prominent national political forecasting newsletter run out of the University of Virginia — explained that with so many candidates, and no clear frontrunner yet among African Americans, it could be that “there is not a candidate who largely consolidates the black vote like Obama did in 2008 and Clinton did in 2016.
“If there is a black vote getting split up in a more significant way, that means South Carolina will probably not be a landslide, and that’s an opportunity for other candidates to perform better here.”
But Sanders still has more work to do, even back in Denmark.
“We cannot live on bottled water forever,” said Letitia Dowling, a Denmark resident and founder of the group Denmark Cares.
“A strong candidate is a candidate who doesn’t just come to be with the issue,” she said, “but really comes in and has something meaningful and stronger to say about the solution.”
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