Dems in Dixie: Sanders campaign deploys new Southern strategy

Vermont senator looks to gain ground on Clinton below Mason-Dixon Line with young black voters

Rapper Killer Mike speaks in support of Bernie Sanders at Atlanta University Center, Feb. 16, 2016, in Atlanta.
Prince Williams/WireImage

ATHENS, Ga. — Melissa Link shares her personal testimony as if she were at a religious retreat. Standing on a table in front of 200 mostly young, white residents of this Southern college town, she explains how she came to believe and asks them to spread the message to the world.

The crowd erupts in applause and cheers wildly. But this isn’t a camp meeting or faith-based revival. She is endorsing Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at the launch party for his campaign’s Athens field office.

“Don’t be ashamed, ever. And don’t be afraid, ever, to let people know what you believe. And share the truth about Bernie,” Link exclaims. “People have given up hope. They have totally given up hope ... We need to restore that hope.”

It’s a scene that has repeated itself across this state and even the region. Sanders had a near-tie in the Iowa caucuses and a resounding victory in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Now his campaign is ramping up its ground game in the South before Super Tuesday, on March 1, when many Southern states hold their primaries. But because those states have a higher percentage of minority voters and have more moderate Democratic electorates, many wonder whether Sanders, a socialist-leaning senator from Vermont, can make true inroads.

The Sanders campaign opened offices in Athens, Atlanta, and Savannah last week, according to state Rep. LaDawn Jones, the campaign’s Georgia director. While those offices are to support campaign efforts for South Carolina primary on Saturday, they’re also making calls and knocking on doors in Georgia.

“We are working with South Carolina to canvas communities throughout South Carolina, and South Carolina will be working with us,” Jones says.

“We are reaching out to the people that matter most, the voters.”

Amanda Guthrie-Puckett, 38, a homemaker from Jefferson, Georgia, is part of that effort. During the Sanders campaign’s launch party in Athens, she shares her struggle to survive on low-paying jobs and meager public assistance. Trying economic times, she says, motivated her to support Barack Obama and, now, Bernie Sanders.

“I’ve seen what money in politics can do,” she said.

Sitting next to her is Christina DeLaigle, 68, a retired teacher from Athens. She tells the group how painful it was when a friend couldn’t afford cancer treatments at the same time DeLaigle’s insurance was able to pay for her own cancer medication.

“I saw that, and it made me so grateful that millions more have health care,” she says of Obama’s signature health care reforms. “[Now] I’m going with Bernie on the single-payer [system],” she adds, in reference to Sanders’ ambitious promise to further reform health care in the U.S.

Analysts have long talked about the South as a firewall for Sanders’ Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.The Democratic electorate in those states is primarily black, voters are predominantly centrist, and there’s far less union influence. That all bodes well for the Clinton campaign, according to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

“If Sanders is going to do well here, it’s going to be because he peels off a share of the younger black votes — not just necessarily college students but black millennials,” he says.

The numbers back that up. Clinton is polling at nearly 58 percent in South Carolina and 60 percent in Georgia, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages. That lead is especially strong among black voters. White Democrats narrowly prefer Clinton to Sanders, 51 percent to 46 percent, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released last week. But her lead over Sanders is an overwhelming 68 percent to 21 percent among black Democrats.

Both campaigns have fought hard for black votes. Sanders spoke to nearly 5,000 students at Atlanta’s all-male Morehouse College last week as part of a tour of historically black colleges and universities. Members of the university’s Omega Psi Phi fraternity chapter performed an impromptu step show in full suits as they waited for the rally to get underway, and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike introduced Sanders.

“We are touching the people via phone, events and canvassing. We are asking Sanders supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors,” Jones says of the campaign’s minority outreach.

There’s evidence those efforts have started paying off. In South Carolina, Sanders has gained almost 10 percentage points in the past two months, from 23 to 33 percent of likely Democratic voters. And that NBC poll found that Clinton’s 47-point lead among black Democratic voters in South Carolina shrinks to a 17 points among black voters under the age of 45.

Those gains may be enough to keep Sanders in the race longer, according to Bullock. Because expectations for Clinton are so high in the South, he says, the media is likely to interpret a relatively narrow Clinton win as a loss. Meanwhile, Sanders could lose the Southern states and still pick up delegates, since many are awarded proportionally rather than winner take all.

“It’s being assumed that she’s going to do real well,” Bullock says of Clinton. “When you fail to meet those kinds of expectations, you lose some of your luster, even if you are coming out ahead.”

In Athens, Kenneth Williams hopes Sanders’ campaign can kick-start more grass-roots progressives in this traditionally conservative part of the country. Georgia’s politics have swung sharply toward the Republican Party in recent decades, he says. However, he thinks Sanders’ populist economic message can stem that tide.

“It would be beautiful and ironic if it was a Northeasterner who started this political revolution that made such a big impact,” Williams says, “and changed this state that I love down here in the South.”

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