SPARTANBURG, South Carolina — You go to a Bernie Sanders rally and expect to find the most fervent supporters of any Democratic candidate by far. I mean devotees—“Berners”—so committed they stage protests outside public officials’ homes in the middle of the night shouting warnings through bullhorns like they did last week in Nevada.
But not in upstate South Carolina. At a rally in Spartanburg on the campus of Wofford College Thursday night, a surprising number of attendees weren’t yet sure who they’d vote for in Saturday’s primary election.
There was the mixed-race couple and their six-year-old daughter who came to check out Bernie but were leaning toward either Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg. There was the black college girl who came for extra credit and wasn’t sure who she’d vote for but liked Bernie because he promised to cancel her student debt.
There was the father and son who drove down from Asheville, North Carolina, who couldn’t quite decide between Sanders and Biden (they have until Tuesday, when North Carolina holds its primary). There was the young twentysomething who liked Sanders, she guessed, but wasn’t planning to vote in the primary and was only there because her Sanders-supporting boyfriend wanted to come.
Then there was the crowd size. Two days before the rally, the Sanders campaign switched to a larger venue to accommodate what they said would be a much larger than anticipated crowd. The venue, Jerry Richardson Stadium at Wofford College, has a capacity of 3,400 but less than 2,000 showed up. Biden has a rally in the same spot tonight, we’ll see if he does better.
Still, there were plenty of die-hard Berners there. One of them, 32-year-old James Alexander of Spartanburg, was representative of the type. He voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary but declined to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general. Many Sanders supporters have vowed to do the same this time around if their man goes to the convention with the most delegates but is denied the nomination. Says Alexander, “If the people are speaking, then the Democratic Party has to listen.”
‘They Really Don’t Like Sanders’
The problem for Sanders in South Carolina is that what the people have to say might not be so great for him. Sanders only won 26 percent of the primary vote in the Palmetto State four years ago and he’s polling just under that now with far more candidates in the race this time around, which suggests his support in this deep-red state (Trump won here in 2016 by more than 14 points) might have a ceiling somewhere in the mid- to low-20s.
If it does, we should expect Biden to win big. Two recent polls showed the former vice president with 36 and 41 percent support, which as my colleague Chris Bedford explains nearby, would revive Biden’s dying campaign and position him to perform well across the South on Super Tuesday, setting the stage for a deeply divided field and a long primary season.
Sanders knows this. If there was one deviation from his usual stump speech on Thursday night, it was a direct appeal to his chances in the general election against Trump compared to Biden’s.
“In my view, Donald Trump cannot be beaten by a traditional political campaign,” he said. “I’ve known Joe a long time, he’s a good guy, but in my view he cannot beat Donald Trump.” Sanders then listed a bunch of reasons Biden would be a poor choice for the Democratic nominee: he voted for the war in Iraq, voted for global trade deals, supported a bankruptcy bill, talked about cutting Social Security and Medicare. The horrors!
What Sanders must surely realize on some level is that these supposed transgressions of Biden’s don’t exactly turn off voters in South Carolina, not even many Democratic voters. Democrats here tend to be more moderate than Democrats in New Hampshire or Sanders’s home state of Vermont. Unhinged calls for a political revolution from Sanders campaign surrogates, like this fellow below, aren’t going to play as well here as they do in San Fransisco or Austin.
Bernie Sanders needs better surrogates. pic.twitter.com/PHACCuQ2KA
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) February 28, 2020
That’s certainly true among black voters, who form a majority of the Democratic primary electorate here. Brent Nelsen, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, told me that black voters in South Carolina tend to be conservative, socially and religiously, even if they don’t vote Republican. “They are very much of the Civil Rights era, and they vote Democratic.” For them, Biden not only represents a connection to Barack Obama, he’s also a very familiar figure who has spent a lot of time here over the years.
The kind of Democrat they vote for, in other words, isn’t Sanders. Based on his conversations with black voters, especially older black voters who are more likely to show up and vote in a Saturday primary, Nelsen doesn’t think Sanders is getting much traction here, despite his outreach efforts over the last four years. I asked him why and he sort of shrugged and said, “They really don’t like Sanders.”