‘This Is Not 2016’: What People Don’t Get About Bernie Sanders and Race – POLITICO
When I first started covering Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015, I thought it would be a relatively short assignment. He jumped into the Democratic primary with low name recognition, a campaign infrastructure dwarfed by Hillary Clinton’s, and a message many observers deemed too radical to ever succeed nationally.
I was wrong.
Story Continued Below
My “short assignment” turned into several months on the road with Sanders and his team. By the time he dropped out of the race at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016—after winning 43 percent of the primary vote nationally and outraising Clinton on the strength of his small-dollar donations—he’d become one of the most popular politicians in America.
The Bernie Sanders who announced last month that he is again running for president is in a very different position than the one I reported on four years ago. The party he was trying to pull to the left seems to have caught up with him, with proposals like “Medicare for All” fast turning into litmus tests for 2020 candidates. He’s still a democratic socialist and still running on the same message, but he is no longer an underdog; he’s a front-runner.
And yet, while much has changed for Sanders, some of the same questions that dogged him in the 2016 race will again be asked by Democratic primary voters over the next few months. Perhaps the biggest of those is whether he can convince enough of them that he isn’t a single-issue candidate—and whether he realizes that even as the Democratic Party has moved closer to him on economic issues, it has grown increasingly vocal on race and identity, issues that even some of Sanders’ supporters concede is a blind spot for the candidate.
“Bernie’s central concern has always been with the condition of what he calls working-class families. He is consumed by the need for economic justice,” Huck Gutman, a University of Vermont professor and Sanders’ former chief of staff, said in an interview with NPR early on in the senator’s 2016 campaign. “[Sanders’] central concerns have never been war or civil rights or gay rights or women’s rights.”
That’s a potential problem for Sanders in the 2020 campaign. His defining issue—economic inequality—has now been co-opted by just about every other serious candidate for the nomination. And that in turn means that the likely areas of contrast between Sanders and his primary opponents will come elsewhere—potentially on issues that touch on race and identity, which have never been the senator’s strong suit.
That said, the conventional narrative around Sanders and race paints his 2016 efforts as a failure, but that’s not accurate.
From the start of his campaign, Sanders and his aides tried to respond to criticisms on race. They were quick to note his history in the civil rights movement at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, framing it as the formative event in his political awakening: “His activism and when it occurred, as a young college student, set in motion the direction of his life,” Sanders adviser Tad Devine told the Chicago Tribune. After Black Lives Matter activists targeted Sanders early on for being tone-deaf about policing, he appointed Symone Sanders, an African-American woman who had been an activist on issues of race and criminal justice, as his national press secretary—ostensibly his most visible messenger on TV. And he made it a point to visit parts of the country where racial disparity is on full display, like West Baltimore, the home of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in the back of a police vehicle in 2015 and whose name became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though Sanders lost a majority of the black vote in the 2016 Democratic primaries, he did win a majority of black (and Latino) voters under age 35 in several states. All over the country, when I talked with black voters, they revealed the same generational differences you’d expect to hear from, well, white voters. Like any other group, the way black voters think about issues like the economy or policing is directly influenced by the times in which they came of age. Living through the war on drugs or the economic boom of the ’90s might mean you see the world a bit differently than younger voters who grew up during the Great Recession and birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Any candidate who wants to win, say, the 2020 South Carolina primary, needs to understand the nuance that can exist within a voting bloc that many outside observers deem monolithic.)
Even so, the questions about Sanders and race never faded. And already, issues of race are again dogging him as he mounts a 2020 effort.
In a recent interview with Vermont Public Radio, Sanders said of his place in the 2020 race as a 77-year-old straight white man, “We have got to look at candidates, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age.” It was a statement that would have seemed innocuous in years past, but in a primary with one of the most diverse candidate rosters in recent memory—and at a time when Democratic politics are wrapped up in issues of race and identity—many Democrats saw this as a misstep and a sign that Sanders’ rhetoric on race and identity needs more workshopping.
These aren’t topics that will fade away anytime soon. Already, the 2020 Democratic contenders are being forced to grapple with the way race affects economic inequality, and how the two issues intersect—as in the simmering debate over economic reparations for the descendants of slaves. In 2008 and 2016, it was a proposal too hot for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Sanders to support. But at this point in the 2020 cycle, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro have already voiced their support, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced she’ll take up a bill to study the issue further, which will likely only increase its salience on the campaign trail. Asked about reparations earlier this week on an episode of “The Breakfast Club” radio show, Sanders said he was opposed to such cash payouts, but instead wanted to “change the banking system so that we end racism”—again, a pivot to his comfort zone of economic inequality. And on ABC‘s “The View” this month, Sanders said of reparations, “I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”
To be fair, Sanders’ messaging on race has shifted. In the past few weeks, he’s called President Donald Trump a racist, talked about voter suppression and discussed the need for policing reform. But to broaden his appeal to black voters, he’ll have to work harder on racial issues than he did four years ago. Then, his only real opponent was Clinton, whom young black voter after young black voter on the trail called out for her “superpredators” comment from 1996, which many interpreted as a slur against young black people. For many primary voters—especially young ones—it wasn’t too hard for Sanders to be better than that on race.
The 2020 primary will be different. Sanders is running against the likes of Cory Booker, Harris and Castro and many other candidates who lack Clinton‘s baggage with voters of color (though some, such as Harris, with her long record as a prosecutor, may have their own).
Even younger black voters who backed Sanders in 2016 aren’t yet fully on board with his 2020 campaign.
Dallas Fowler, a political consultant and strategist in Southern California, was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention—one of a relatively small number of black women at the event who were pledged to support Sanders. I interviewed her several times over the course of the 2016 election cycle, and we spoke again after Sanders’ announcement.
Fowler told me that Sanders’ “revolution never ended,” and that she’s happy to see him run again, even though she’s not guaranteeing him her vote just yet. “The race is different,” Fowler told me. “This is not 2016.”
Fowler says of the former Sanders delegates she talks to—they all stay in touch, she says—maybe a third still are undecided who they’ll support, while the majority say they’ll back Sanders again.
She says she still likes Sanders, but she’s waiting to see what he and all the other Democratic contenders have to say. He hasn’t won her over yet. Especially when it comes to race, Fowler said, “I need to hear a few different things from the last time.”