Here’s the big problem for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He will either win outright or make a powerful second-place showing in both the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1.
Why is that a problem? Simple, the wins will mean next to nothing. The two states are two of the whitest states in the country. Democratic voters in both states have a contrarian, quasi-populist streak. They have a history of thumbing their noses at traditional Democratic contenders.
That was the case in 1968 when New Hampshire Democrats backed Democratic anti-Vietnam war Sen. Eugene McCarthy. It was a major reason that then-President Lyndon Johnson dropped his bid for re-election. Iowa Democrats did the same 40 years later when they backed insurgent then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.
The brutal political reality is that numbers, and in this case, tradition are against Sanders in the states that will determine the Democratic presidential nominee. In the space of three weeks after the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, eight out of the next 13 open Democratic primaries are in the South. South Carolina kicks off that run.
Black voters in that state make up nearly 50 percent of the voters. In Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana and Oklahoma, black voters either make up the majority of Democrats or a sizeable minority.
In the 2014 mid-term elections, they voted in greater proportions than white voters. No one knows better than Clinton that black voters can make or break a Democratic presidential contender.
In the weeks before the South Carolina primary in 2008, she was the runaway favorite to bag the black vote and win the state primary. She won neither. Obama did, in part because he had a massive ground game there that laser focused on black voters and in part because he was black and his election was history making.
Hillary had no chance against that. This time, Clinton is determined that there will be no repeat of 2008.
She has practically camped out in the state, courted and got the backing of every black elected official in that state and other southern states that she could, made blatant race-tinged pitches on police abuse, boosts to historically black colleges, voting rights, blasted disparities in education and health care for blacks, and tightly embraced the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Sanders has scrambled hard and fast to try and make up the ground in the South. He’s made a mighty effort to get visibility, traction and endorsements from black organizations and elected officials in South Carolina and other southern states.
He’s done much to try and convey his message that fighting wealth and income inequality, and for a single payer health care mean much for impoverished blacks. He’s hit hard on police abuse and criminal justice reform.
His efforts have had marginal effect. It’s not due to anything Sanders has or hasn’t done. His record and history on civil rights and wealth and income inequality is every bit as impeccable as Clinton’s.
But that record and history hasn’t been a central focus of his campaign, nor is it likely to be. It’s his relentless assault on Wall Street, corporate greed and the wealth gap that is his political mantra and strength.
That isn’t a bad thing. However, in a racially tense and polarized nation, where race matters, and matters greatly in politics, this single focus issue and the faces at his crowds haven’t been lost on many blacks.
The great irony is that the script for Sanders with a win in Iowa and New Hampshire is the exact opposite of what the two states meant for Obama in 2008. Obama had to win both for two reasons. One was to prove that his candidacy had the political juice, staying power and credibility to attract big donors and pry many of the party traditionalists away from Clinton.
The other was much thornier, but no less important for a real run for the White House. As an African-American presidential candidate, he had to prove that he could actually get a big percentage of whites to vote for a black presidential candidate.
Sanders has no such problem in the two states. It’s in the South and with black voters that he faces the Herculean task of trying to convince black voters that he is electable and that a senator who represents a state with a negligible percent of black voters can be as sensitive to and aggressively fight hard against racial and social injustices. Clinton has the tradition and track record to make that claim. She is working overtime to cement it with black voters.
A win or a big showing in Iowa and New Hampshire by Sanders will get tons of media attention, boost his stock even further among his fervent backers, and will raise the eyebrows of some in the Democratic Party establishment. It just won’t do much to win him the Democratic nomination.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “From Sanders to Trump: A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Primary Battles” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.