Why Bernie Sanders Is Wrong About the Deep South

The typical Southern Democratic voter is neither white nor conservative. 

Bernie Sanders south carolina.
It is too much to say that Bernie Sanders is deliberately dismissing black voters. But that’s the effect of his argument. Above, Sanders speaking in South Carolina on Feb. 26.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

As the Democratic primary turns into its final stretch, Bernie Sanders, his advisers, and his surrogates are making a three-step argument to remaining primary voters and uncommitted Democratic elites that suggests either a deliberate misreading of his party’s electoral base in the South or genuine ignorance. Whatever the case, Team Bernie seems to be working from some long-expired premises about the nature of the Southern electorate, which today is neither white nor conservative.

First, the argument goes, the senator has momentum. “And having won seven out of the last eight caucuses and primaries, having a level of excitement and energy among working people and low-income people, and doing better against Donald Trump and the other Republicans in poll after poll than Secretary Clinton is, yeah, I believe that we’re going to win this nomination,” said Sanders near the conclusion of Thursday’s debate in Brooklyn, New York.

Second, this is why “superdelegates”—uncommitted delegates who can support either candidate—should back the senator if Hillary Clinton doesn’t win the nomination outright. “Nobody is going to arrive in Philadelphia with enough delegates to win the nomination,” said Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver in an interview with NPR. “[I]t looks like the Democrats are going into an open convention as well.”

There’s a problem. Even if Clinton doesn’t reach the delegate threshold, she’ll likely still have more votes and delegates than Sanders. To throw the nomination to the runner-up using superdelegates would be to play the same undemocratic game he decried earlier in the process.

But Team Sanders has a response. “Her grasp now on the nomination is almost entirely on the basis of victories where Bernie Sanders did not compete,” said senior strategist Tad Devine in a March conference call with reporters, listing eight states in the South: Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas. Clinton, Devine continued, “has emerged as a weak frontrunner.”

“Well, you know,” said Bernie Sanders on Wednesday, responding to Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore, who asked if he thought the process was “rigged,” “people say, ‘Why does Iowa go first, why does New Hampshire go first?’ but I think that having so many Southern states go first kind of distorts reality as well.” He continued, pivoting to superdelegates, “When a lot of these so-called superdelegates begin to see which candidate is the strongest candidate … I think some of these guys are going to be coming our way.”

Sanders took this line again at Thursday’s debate. “Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true. Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact.”

Between the three statements, the Sanders argument is clear: Yes, Hillary Clinton has more votes and more delegates, and will likely have more votes and more delegates when voting ends. But she won those votes and those delegates in conservative states where Sanders was weak and didn’t compete. If you ignore them—or at least, if you give them an asterisk—then she’s weaker than she looks. So far, so good, right?

Not at all.

To start, this is a bit hypocritical. Sanders has won seven of the past eight contests, but four of those wins came in states so Republican that they’ve backed a Democrat only once in the past 60 years: Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and Wyoming. If the South’s conservatism is reason to discount Clinton’s success there, then the same is true for Sanders vis a vis his wins in the Mountain West and elsewhere.

There’s also the simple fact that the primary calendar did not begin with the Deep South, which usually includes Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and adjacent parts in other states, like the Florida panhandle, East Texas, and parts of Tennessee. The only Deep South states that voted in the first few weeks were Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Other Southern states, like Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee, were a little more hospitable to Sanders.

If the argument is that Sanders would have done better under a different calendar, that doesn’t hold up, either. The most diverse states with representative populations and general-election significance—Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois—are also friendly to Clinton. And broadly, a primary scheme that starts with large states is also one that disadvantages insurgent candidates like Sanders, who don’t begin the process with the same resources and support. That the Democratic primaries began with Iowa and New Hampshire was a great stroke of luck for Sanders, given his coalition and early challenges.

Which gets to the largest—and most troubling—problem with the “Deep South” arguments from Bernie Sanders and his campaign. In the popular imagination, Southern Democrats are still “good ’ol boys” and wealthy elites—the Bill Clintons and (for a fictional version) the Frank Underwoods of the world. In reality, those Democrats have long since died or left the party. The typical Southern Democrat of 2016—and of 2008, and even of 2004—is black; the typical Southern Democratic voter is a black woman in middle age; and the Democratic electorate in the Deep South is largely black.

The primaries bear this out. In South Carolina, blacks were 61 percent of all voters. In Alabama, they were 54 percent; in Georgia, 51 percent; in Mississippi, 71 percent. We don’t have exit polls for Louisiana, but given its large black population and racially polarized politics, it’s a reasonable guess that most of the Democratic voters in that primary were black as well.

At the same time that the Democratic Party of the South has become, for the most part, a black party, the ideological distance between congressional Democrats in the North and South has also shrunk, with little difference between the two. The reason is straightforward. Across racial and economic issues, black Americans are more liberal, as a group, than their white counterparts, and this is reflected in their choice of representatives, who stand on the left side of the House Democratic Caucus. Blacks are more conservative on social issues—a function of high religiosity—but those are less salient than economic and civil rights concerns. Black voters are far from a monolith—as evidenced by Sanders’ significant support among young black voters and slightly higher support among blacks outside the South—but dismissing the South is dismissing where they hold the most significance.

Again, the primary results give a glimpse into the ideological composition of the Democratic South. In the states with the largest black voting populations—South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi—an average of 54 percent of voters identify as “very” or “somewhat” liberal. For the four of the whitest primary states—Massachusetts, Michigan, Vermont and Washington—that number is 67 percent. Sanders’ geographic base is more liberal than Clinton’s, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. It is also true, as Phillip Bump demonstrates for the Washington Post, that on questions of government and its role in society, Democrats agree regardless of region. On the issue where Sanders is most liberal, Southern Democrats are no less likely to agree than any of their peers.

As long as you grasp that Southern Democrats are black ones, this is easy to understand, albeit inconvenient for Team Sanders’ claim that he is the actual choice of the Democratic base.

It is too much to say that Sanders is deliberately dismissing black voters. But that’s the effect of his argument, and the impact goes beyond the Democratic primary. The rise of the black Southern Democrat is also the decline of the white one. There was a time when black politicians in the South could govern with white ones to reach common goals. It’s gone. Now, in Republican-dominated Southern states, blacks are almost shut out of power. It’s how we get voter-suppression laws North Carolina. It’s why the Medicaid expansion—funded under the Affordable Care Act—is still absent from most of the states of the former Confederacy.

Worse, because they live in red states, most black Southern Democrats are ignored in the general presidential election, and get little attention in off-year races. The Democratic presidential primary is the one time, once every four years, when they have a voice, and it’s a powerful one. To dismiss it is to disrespect the most loyal and perhaps most vital part of the Democratic coalition—a group that sustains progressive politics in some of the most reactionary parts of the country.

If the moral argument doesn’t move you, try the strategic one. For as much as Democrats talk about Texas or Arizona as future opportunities, the better and more immediate bets are North Carolina and Georgia, where demographic change is shrinking the Republican advantage year after year. In 2008, black Democrats joined with Latinos and liberal whites to turn the state blue, and it was competitive again in 2012. This year, if Donald Trump is the nominee, there’s a good chance that North Carolina goes blue again, and brings Georgia with it. If Bernie Sanders wants to bring about a political revolution, he should refrain from spurning the Democrats who are most likely to make it happen.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.