Bernie Sanders loses South Carolina but not the war.

Bernie Sanders’ Primary Prospects Are Bleak. He Should Keep Running.

Bernie Sanders’ Primary Prospects Are Bleak. He Should Keep Running.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 27 2016 10:48 PM

Why Bernie Sanders Should Stay in the Race

He’s not going to beat Hillary Clinton, but there are bigger battles to fight. 

510100862-democratic-presidential-candidate-bernie-sanders-speaks
Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally on Feb. 13, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The only question with South Carolina and Hillary Clinton was the final margin. Would Clinton win by 20 points, following her lead in the polls, or would Bernie Sanders make this a close race? Would turnout meet 2008, or would it fall short, like in previous contests?

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

By mid-Saturday night, with 91 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton held an almost 48-point advantage over Sanders, 73.5 percent to 23.9 percent. She swept every county, winning blacks 86 percent to 14 percent (surpassing Barack Obama’s 2008 margin), winning whites 54 percent to 46 percent, and even winning very liberal voters. As with Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, she lagged with younger voters, losing them 46 percent to Sanders’ 54 percent. Turnout was down from 2008 (361,000 versus 532,000), as it has been, but it’s important to remember that the race between Clinton and Obama was much more competitive than the present one between Sanders and Clinton. Compared to 2004, a typical year, turnout is substantially up. And, it should be said, more voters backed Clinton than came out for Trump in last week’s Republican primary.

Advertisement

For insight into Clinton’s overwhelming victory, it’s worth looking to Orangeburg, a small and struggling town in the state’s rural center, where both camps made final stops before voting on Saturday.

There, at the annual oyster roast, before a mostly black audience of older and female voters, Clinton and Sanders made their closing arguments. As usual, Clinton promised to break down “all of the barriers” facing American voters and defend “all rights” from Republican attacks. And Sanders, as usual, pledged to transform American politics, breaking the power of big banks and bringing new guarantees—for college, for health care—to ordinary Americans.

But these weren’t parallel appearances. Clinton didn’t just launch into her stump speech. In this almost archetypal political venue—a public picnic at a local fairgrounds—Clinton went retail with her politics, speaking to the particulars of Orangeburg and South Carolina writ large. Sanders, by contrast, did not.

It was a microcosm of the entire South Carolina campaign. Clinton held rallies in the state and organized in the major cities of Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston, but a large part of her team’s time and effort went toward less traveled regions, the rural regions where Barack Obama built his victory in 2008. Clinton spoke to isolated towns of low-income and working-class black Americans.

Advertisement

Sanders stuck to massive rallies, which are effective for showing enthusiasm—especially among young voters—but not as ideal for persuading the working- and middle-class black women that determine primaries in South Carolina. They are the backbone of the state’s Democratic Party; a loyal group that votes and volunteers out of proportion to their numbers in the electorate. Clinton focused on them—with surrogates like the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Eric Garner—and they responded in kind. Black women were 37 percent of the electorate in South Carolina and backed Clinton 89 percent to Sanders’ 11 percent. Clinton’s small-scale contact paid huge dividends.

It’s important to note the role of time in all of this. In addition to her past in the state, Clinton has spent years cultivating connections and relationships among South Carolina Democrats. She’s also earned goodwill for working in Obama’s administration. The only way Sanders could have overcome this is with more time and an effort that fully canvassed the state. Unfortunately for Sanders, he had neither, and his able campaign crashed against Clinton’s powerful effort and deep support among voters and state Democratic leaders.

What comes next?

The scale of Clinton’s win—and the depth of her support with black voters—alters the Super Tuesday picture. Before, conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win in states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Arkansas, where the Democratic Party is disproportionately black. But her almost 9-to-1 victory—along with her performance in Nevada among Latinos—suggests a cleaner sweep, with a win in Texas and a closer contest Massachusetts and Minnesota, where black voters are an important part of the state’s Democratic electorate. And for the March 5, 8, and 16 primaries—when Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio vote—Clinton’s performance with black voters, as well as white voters in South Carolina’s Appalachia, suggests a series of sweeps.

Advertisement

The simple fact is that there aren’t enough states like Iowa and New Hampshire—where whites are a majority of voters and the large bulk of the Democratic Party—to give Sanders the kinds of wins he needs to capture the nomination, or even make the fight as competitive as it was at the beginning of February. Despite his fundraising prowess and enthusiastic supporters, his strength is running low.

That doesn’t mean Sanders has been unsuccessful or that he should leave the race. An able competitor, Sanders has forced Clinton to sharpen her message and work for the nomination. And he’s pulled her somewhat to the left, prompting her to embrace a public option for the Affordable Care Act and move in line with the base on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline. Which is to say that, if Sanders’ goal is to make the Democratic Party more ideological, he should stay in the game, pressuring Clinton and forcing further commitments to his agenda.

Indeed, Sanders’ campaign can serve as a base for other left-wing efforts to shape the Democratic Party. Now is the time to endorse down-ballot candidates, pressure less liberal Democrats, build a policy agenda, and lay a foundation for future candidates. In short, now is the time for Bernie Sanders to construct a Sanders wing of the Democratic Party that will push and advocate for social democracy.

Politics never ends, and this Democratic primary is just one battle. If Sanders loses, it doesn’t mean he has to forfeit the war.