Sanders’s Not-So-Southern Strategy

The Vermont senator’s eagerness to write off voters in the South exposes a key weakness in his campaign.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Just what does the South matter to national politics? Of course, as a Southerner I am not entirely equipped to answer that question without bias, but according to the Census, the South is the largest region in the country, with a population almost equivalent to that of the Northeast and Midwest combined. Depending on definitions, the Deep South has over 100 electoral college votes––a number that swells if other former Confederate states like Florida and Virginia are admitted––and its national electing power is reflected by rich delegate counts in primary races.

Evidently, Senator Bernie Sanders wishes that the region had a little less electoral power. During Thursday’s debate with Hillary Clinton, he repeated a point that has recently gained prominence in his own remarks and the echoes of his surrogates: That an early front-loading of primaries in the South “distorts reality” and that the South is not a vital part of the Democrats’ national coalition. With that sentiment comes a bit of a deeper implication. The minority voters of the South might not be a part of his plans moving forward.

“Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true: Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South, no question about it,” Sanders said. “That is the most conservative part of this great country. That's the fact. But you know what, we're out of the Deep South now. And we're moving up.” The suggestions here––some that have been made by the campaign for weeks––are that Democratic primary voters in the South are more conservative and thus more pro-Clinton, and that the region’s red states are of less importance to the general election than traditional liberal bastions or swing states. Some of Clinton’s biggest wins came early in southern states like South Carolina, and Super Tuesday featured seven out of 11 races below the Mason-Dixon line, a placement that Sanders believes unfairly granted Clinton momentum. He has cited a string of recent victories in western states as a proof-of-concept moving forward.

The implications of each of these claims deserve scrutiny. Is the South really the most conservative part of the country? At least for the purposes of the Democratic primary––which is the race at hand––that claim is not clearly true. In the southern states of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, between 20 to 27 percent of Democratic primary voters in exit polls identified as “very liberal,” with a range of 54 to 59 percent identifying as liberal in total. This profile does not look much different than the major––and decidedly non-southern––states of Ohio and Michigan, where 22 and 23 percent of Democratic voters were “very liberal” and 59 and 57 percent identified as liberal. Polls in New York suggest that about 24 percent of likely Democratic primary voters are “very liberal.” A recent poll in the great liberal bastion of California suggests similar numbers to New York, with about a quarter of Democratic voters aligning as very liberal and around 60 percent identifying as liberal.

The pre-election polls and exit polls in the ten largest states, which make up over half of the population of the United States, just don’t show a great deal of variance in the amount of liberal or very liberal voters among Democrats. Although more liberal voters do tend to gravitate towards Sanders and although some of Sanders’s wins have come from especially liberal Democratic electorates, including those in Vermont and Wisconsin, the fact of the matter is that the party that he is running to lead largely identifies as either somewhat liberal or moderate. The South hasn’t been much different.

A slightly altered version of this argument has been served up by some surrogates: that the Deep South is a lost cause for a Democrat in the general election. The relevance of this formulation in a primary election is unclear, save for some vague conceptualizations about electability, but an implicit disregard for the South in the primaries undermines Sanders’s pro-democracy arguments about superdelegates and campaign finance. Although it is very unlikely that the region will flip for Clinton or Sanders in the general election, the South might actually lean Democratic by affiliation, and President Obama’s landmark campaign in 2008 has demonstrated that the region can be made competitive and possibly opened up to a Democratic candidate.

Even if red states remain firmly red, primary elections function as a key lever for voters with little chance of impacting their states’ electoral votes to actually have some say in the race. This concern is especially salient now that several southern states have moved to make voting harder in ways that most impact people of color and the poor. How does Sanders, who envisions his political revolution as a broad coalition of marginalized people, account for his own inability to connect with and listen to marginalized southern voters?

Sanders’s regional challenges underscore the reality that the coalition he tried to assemble to secure the nomination has failed to fully materialize. It has become abundantly clear that any path to victory for Sanders no longer involves black and Latino voters as a necessary constituency. The states where he has performed the best have been overwhelmingly white. Sanders has made some isolated inroads with black voters, especially young black voters, but Clinton’s largest margins have continually come from southern black voters. Save for a very few races, most primary elections have been decided by very easily-identified demographic splits, as opposed to differences in liberal ideology. The South, home to most black people in the country, represents an obstacle that Sanders would rather go around than through. Bluntly, Sanders’s problem isn’t that the South is too conservative; but that the region is too black.

Sanders’s regional approach may well pay off in the end, but it would be a poor reflection on a party that often counts on the benefits of a “demographic revolution” to secure its future. Much of that revolution is occurring in the South, the largest and fastest-growing region in the country. Fifty-eight percent of all black people and 41 percent of all people of color in the country live in the South, and Democrats continue to rely on a diverse coalition of voters that looks more and more like the people who live in the region. The South in many ways already reflects what the Democratic Party ostensibly seeks to be and represent moving forward. Sanders, however, is hustling backwards.