By Ben Kamisar - 11/30/15 05:27 PM EST
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonStein attempts to mock Johnson after foreign leader gaffe Lawsuit: Trump wanted to replace unattractive female employees America cannot elect a fat-shaming misogynist as president MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersVulnerable NH Republican ties reelection bid to Trump Overnight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade Trump mocks Clinton for stumbling while sick with pneumonia MORE (I-Vt.) are both highlighting the civil rights movement as they compete for the African-American vote with just two months left before the official start of primary season.
Clinton on Tuesday will give the keynote speech at the commemoration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama — just one week after Sanders visited The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, where he met with King’s daughter Bernice.
“I just don’t know how you close that gap,” said Rick Wade, the former senior adviser and national director of the African-American vote for Barack ObamaBarack ObamaBring back PART: the case for evidence-based fiscal discipline Ryan: Recession 'around the corner' without tax reform First lady slams Trump's 'birther' comments MORE’s campaign, who is unaffiliated in this race.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done … but without a major hiccup or issue with Hillary, I don’t know what the thing is that Bernie can do that so distinguishes him that mass numbers of African-Americans are going to move to his side.”
Minority voters, specifically black Americans, will be a crucial bloc in a series of contests after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, two states with a predominantly white Democratic primary electorate. That’s not the case in South Carolina — where more than half the 2008 primary electorate was black — and for a number of the states that follow March’s Super Tuesday.
More than 70 percent of the states with contests through Super Tuesday on March 1 have a Democratic primary electorate of at least 20 percent nonwhite voters, according to analysis by The University of Virginia Center for Politics’s Geoffrey Skelley.
“If you think about South Carolina and Nevada, the reason why we chose those states was to ensure these candidates didn’t wait late in the game to reach out [to minority voters],” said Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), referring to the third and fourth states to hold presidential nominating contests. As a DNC official, Brazile does not endorse a candidate.
Polling outside of early primary states isn’t as consistent, but repeated surveys from South Carolina show Sanders in a deep hole.
Clinton held a 54-point lead in the state and a 71-point lead with black voters in a mid-November Public Policy Polling survey, as well as an overwhelming 85 percent favorability rating among black voters. By comparison, black voters’ positive and negative views on Sanders are split at an even 32 percent, with 36 percent unsure.
Both campaigns have similar tactics as far as wooing African-American voters. Each sees the candidate’s platform as uniquely reflective of the needs of black Americans, including fighting income inequality and pushing for criminal justice and other civil rights reform.
And both campaigns have met with organizers from groups such as Black Lives Matter as well as families who have lost loved ones in incidents involving police, and are working to roll out a robust schedule of events that take the candidate directly to voters in their communities.
Wade, the former Obama senior adviser who is based in South Carolina, said Sanders’s stagnant polling with African-American voters doesn’t amount to a messaging problem, but to the stark disadvantages he has faced from the start.
“Bernie’s core message is right on point, but his message hasn’t committed a movement of people to the polls,” he said.
“Even with Bernie having the right message, I’m not sure he’s going to be able to gain the rank-and-file support to create a movement of people to his side. [Clinton] has just such a strong history and has built such a strong organization.”
The former secretary of State’s organizational support within the black community is as daunting as her poll numbers.
More than 30 Congressional Black Caucus members endorsed Clinton, including civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Lewis is expected to join a handful of prominent African-American politicians and celebrities including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, musician Pharrell Williams, singer John Legend and basketball icon Magic Johnson to act as surrogates in states with primaries through March, according to an early November memo obtained by The Hill.
Clinton has been laying the groundwork with black voters across the nation for years, as early as her 2008 presidential campaign. While President Obama ended up toppling her by a wide margin just months after she held a double-digit lead (and managing to entice Lewis to defect from Clinton), the visibility, combined with her husband’s popularity, has been cited as a major piece of her organizational support for 2016.
And she has sought to connect her platform to minority communities, with events including a fiery speech on voting rights at a historically black university in Texas.
Sanders’s team has repeatedly pointed to the candidate’s low name recognition and polls that show the majority of voters haven’t settled on a candidate as proof that the Vermont senator has ample room to grow.
“There has always been a sense of urgency in engaging people in the political revolution,” Sanders spokeswoman Symone Sanders told The Hill soon after the senator’s Southern swing through South Carolina and Atlanta, noting that the campaign has “the resources to expand the fight.”
“We feel great about where we are and we are only going up from here. ... We are going to shock some folks,” continued Symone Sanders, no relation to the candidate.
Sanders spent that swing giving an address on criminal justice reform that was live streamed on BET’s website and stumped with rapper Killer Mike, who has spoken out in favor of the protests stemming from the killings of black men in Missouri and Baltimore at the hands of law enforcement.
Killer Mike also took Sanders to visit his Atlanta barbershop and the senator hit the pulpit at a Charleston, S.C., Baptist church with the goal of meeting voters on their home turf.
The Vermont senator’s tour of the King Center in Atlanta came as he has repeatedly tried to paint his message of income inequality as the logical extension of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetoric, most recently echoing King as he sought to explain his self-identification as a democratic socialist.
“His entire political life has been set on the premise of what Dr. King was about and stood for,” Symone Sanders explained.
“[Sanders] was talking about poverty in America, that we have to move towards economic equality. Yes, we want the ability to sit at the lunch counter, but we also want the ability to buy a hamburger when we are sitting there, to own the establishment.”
But while Brazile admitted that Clinton has the “home team advantage,” she added that Sanders could make inroads and surmount a late-fall double-digit margin like a certain freshman Illinois senator did in 2008.
“You’ve got to make sure those that can hear your message and can be turned on to what you are saying can be turned out on Election Day,” she said.
“[Clinton] has a commanding presence, but in 2008, she had a commanding presence as well.”