CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Bernie Sanders’ campaign co-chair Nina Turner took the stage at the North Charleston convention center Wednesday with a simple rallying cry before the senator’s speech: Sanders has been winning.
“Hello Iowa! Hello New Hampshire! Hello Nevada!” said Turner, a former Ohio state senator, rattling off Sanders’ primary victories. Then, to roaring applause, Turner added one more to the list: “And hello South Carolina!”
In the week before the South Carolina primary, Sanders scheduled four rallies in the state, interspersed with stops in North Carolina and Virginia — states that are among the 14 voting on Super Tuesday next week.
But there is an understanding that South Carolina may be the first night of the 2020 presidential cycle when Sanders has to cede the victory speech to another candidate: former Vice President Joe Biden. Even in Iowa, where Pete Buttigieg won the state delegate count, Sanders had thousands more individual votes to his name than the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
“We are going to go to Super Tuesday regardless and win,” Ari Rabin-Havt, Sanders’ deputy campaign manager, said as candidate prepared to take the stage in Virginia.
Going into Saturday’s primary, every poll shows Biden winning South Carolina — and seemingly by a wide margin. The most recent, a poll from Monmouth University conducted less than a week from the primary, has Biden leading Sanders by 20 percentage points, but Sanders still polled at 16% — above the 15% threshold to leave the state with delegates. Last week, two polls from NBC/Marist College showed Sanders in a statistical tie with Biden. Another, from Public Policy Polling, had Sanders behind Biden by 15 percentage points.
Biden is resting his entire campaign on a win in South Carolina, which he says will be his springboard to victories across the country. But he has invested in Super Tuesday far less than some competitors who have more money in their campaign coffers.
For Sanders, South Carolina isn’t the only priority. The priority, one campaign aide said, is South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states that are voting in less than a week. The goal is to keep up momentum — and that doesn’t necessitate a win.
“We are very confident in our supporters, we are very confident in what we have built in states like California,” Rabin-Havt said, adding that he believes the campaign will do well in South Carolina. “We are the only campaigns that I think can make thresholds everywhere, and that says something.”
That’s reflected in how Sanders has spent the last week strategically between Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and California. Biden needs South Carolina to prove he is capable of winning races. Sanders has already proven that. For him, the bigger prize is the one-third of the national delegates that are up for grabs three days after the South Carolina primary.
“I don’t think he has to win South Carolina, but he has to be competitive,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who did African American voter outreach for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “I don’t think the reverse of what happened with him and Biden in Nevada can happen in South Carolina without that taking some momentum away from Bernie.”
The test for Sanders in Saturday’s primary is about his campaign’s organizing ability. Sanders may be a known entity in the Democratic field, but that may not have been the biggest advantage in South Carolina, where he lost to Clinton by nearly 50 points in 2016. South Carolina will be the first time Black Americans, who make up roughly 60% of the Democratic electorate in the state, will have the majority say in an election.
“We have come a long, long way,” Sanders said of his position in the state at the North Charleston rally, touting his campaign’s grassroots organizing. His workers have knocked on more than 200,000 doors in the state, he said.
Building An Operation From The Ground Up
Dalhi Myers, a 51-year-old Richland County council member, knows how to disarm the residents of Eastover, South Carolina — a small low-income African American community of roughly 800 people that is still struggling to recover from flooding in 2015. There are stretches of roads lined with abandoned homes. Those that are occupied are visibly in need of repair.
To get elected in 2016, Myers had to win a special election, with two runoffs in a matter of months. She’s knocked on these doors. And she has another connection.
The first thing Myers says is, “I’m Ted Myers’ daughter.” Doors then open, skeptical expressions turn into hugs and the conversation flows ― from local town gossip to what Myers came to talk about: why she is voting for Sanders.
Ted Myers, Dalhi’s father, is the pastor of a prominent Black church with a congregation of more than 2,000 people less than 10 miles down the road. He’s a Tom Steyer supporter. And Dalhi Myers used to be a Biden supporter. But in late January, she changed her mind.
“I have met Joe Biden, I have an affinity for Joe Biden,” Myers said, as she walked through an overgrown yard to knock on another door. The neighbors all have Joe Biden signs up. “We need wholesale rethinking, and I came down on Bernie Sanders. Because incremental change isn’t working. It’s not helping.”
Sanders is “exciting in the way that Obama was exciting,” Myers said, adding that Biden isn’t.
Sanders’ message and organizing has begun to resonate with African American voters — especially among younger Black voters, where one national poll showed him three times more popular than Biden was.
But he doesn’t have the deep ties to South Carolina like Biden; the former vice president has been coming to the state for years. He has a vacation home in the low country. He’s won the most coveted endorsement in the state: Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) the oldest, most senior Black elected official in Congress. And he can claim to be Barack Obama’s right-hand man.
In a state where trust and familiarity carry politicians a long way, Sanders had a lot of ground to make up. It’s what has made support from people like Myers so important, and why the Sanders campaign has put the most emphasis on face to face organizing. The campaign is also getting some indirect help on his message from groups like Medicare For All Now, which isn’t affiliated with any candidate, but has paid canvassers in the state going door to door to help get voters comfortable with a government-run health care system ― which also happens to be Sanders’ signature policy issue.
The message is getting through.
“I have people in my family that are very ill and sometimes they can’t get to the doctor because of no insurance and I’m really trying to help them and to help my grandchildren as they grow up,” said Martha Richardson, 68, of Lexington, at Sanders’ North Charleston rally.
Another voter, Al Townsend, 59, of North Charleston, said he was still undecided between Sanders and Steyer. But enough young people around him that he trusts were talking to him about Sanders that he’s leaning toward the senator.
“I got some nieces and some friends they are more Bernie swingers this time” and they are convincing, Townsend said, noting that affordable housing and climate change are the most important issues for him.
The Sanders campaign launched its first TV ad in South Carolina 10 days before the primary; it featured Myers.
“Initially I was a Joe Biden supporter,” she says, looking directly at the camera. “I switched from the Biden campaign to the Sanders campaign because I want to see the kind of lines around the building that we saw in 2008 I want to see people motivated to get out and vote for a candidate that they believe in.”
Can Sanders Keep Up Momentum?
Five days ahead of the primary in South Carolina ― the fourth state to vote in the Democratic presidential primary ― downtown Charleston was teeming with Sanders volunteers, both locals and out of towners. The campaign has canvassers going out in three shifts every day across the state.
An hour into door-knocking, Cameron McManus, 24, had only experienced a handful of rejections: a Republican, one man who hadn’t registered to vote in time and a young woman who told him “don’t worry about it” when he asked who she was voting for. At the same time, he had signed up two volunteers, seemed to convince a voter teetering between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to pick Sanders, and got a Buttigieg supporter to say he’d look into Sanders’ platform.
“We’re fighting against apathy,” McManus told a young woman, whose father had advised her to vote for Sanders.
It will come down to margins on Saturday. Biden is looking poised to deliver on his promised win in South Carolina. But what Biden doesn’t have is the momentum. Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa, was triumphant in the New Hampshire primary and walked away from Nevada with a blowout victory. Biden says the primary doesn’t really start until South Carolina. Sanders wants South Carolina to prove he can be competitive everywhere.
McManus was about to knock on the door of a Colonial house downtown, ready to make his pitch for Sanders, when someone shouted at him from the street.
“No,” a man yelled out from his car. “We don’t want that,” pointing at the Sanders pamphlets that McManus was holding.
Undeterred, McManus moved on to the next house on his list when the same man shouted back at him, this time apologetic.
“Yesterday, you guys came through,” he said. “You’ve been covering it pretty well.”