Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary in large part because he failed to win the hearts of black progressives.
It didn’t have to be that way. But his campaign never explained how black people fit into his vision of a radically changed America. And, according to a series of Fusion interviews with former staff members, campaign leadership didn’t really see the point in trying.
Those former staffers described a campaign that failed to give its black outreach teams the resources they needed, that never figured out how to connect to black audiences, and that marginalized black media.
In the process, the campaign missed a chance to capitalize on a revolutionary message that otherwise might have appealed to black voters frustrated with the current political order.
Instead, Sanders was clobbered by Hillary Clinton among black voters in state after state after state, including some where Sanders either won white voters or lost them narrowly. The gap made it all but impossible for him to win the nomination.
Sanders himself was “sincere to the core,” said Roy Tatem, the campaign’s former deputy director for African-American outreach. But he said he felt that neither campaign manager Jeff Weaver nor other high-ranking figures thought Sanders could overcome Hillary Clinton’s appeal to black voters.
“I think they felt that the relationship with Hillary was so strong that they didn’t have confidence in doing much of anything to change it,” Tatem said. “Some people felt he had a better chance at winning the Latino vote and the millennial vote than the black vote.”
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Anyone who knows black voters—and Sanders clearly didn’t—knows that Clinton did not have them on lock. Black people started with a better relationship with her, but familiarity doesn’t equal votes.
Demoralized by police killings, left even further behind by economic inequality, held back for generations by structural racism, black people were primed for a political revolution.
Sanders was ready to lead one. From the time he announced his campaign, in April 2015, his crusade against economic inequality galvanized a sleeping sector of the populace that felt left out of the political process.
But Sanders seldom trained that same impassioned rhetoric on the problems that so many black voters wanted addressed: police brutality, white supremacy, and the ways in which economic inequality is inextricable from race.
It may have been white privilege, or simple cultural ignorance of black people and our plights. The Vermont senator, who built a movement on lofty promises like universal health care and free college, dismissed reparations for black people as “very divisive.”
He appeared not to realize that you can’t simply deliver the same speech on economic inequality to a room full of black people in Atlanta that you would to a room full of white people in Iowa.
“For African-Americans, he never connected the dots from a practical perspective,” Tara Dowdell, a political strategist who has worked local, state, and federal campaigns, told me. “How would this measurably improve your life? And his colorblind approach to economics ignores the fact that this is the United States of America, where policy and economics and race are tied.”
Put another way, it takes more than marching with MLK to win black votes.
It takes outreach. But several former members of Sanders’ black outreach team told me the campaign didn’t believe pulling black voters from Clinton was a real possibility; the white vote, the staffers said, was the campaign’s priority.
Tatem told me that his department was underfunded, making it almost impossible to do the necessary work in the Southern states that voted on Super Tuesday, March 1.
“We had to go through so many hoops to get resources, it felt like we had to fill out credit card applications every time we asked for something,” Tatem told me on the phone. “That’s how it felt.”
Tatem said that he and Marcus Ferrell, the former African-American outreach director for the campaign, had access to Weaver. But he said it felt as though neither Weaver nor other high-ranking figures in the campaign ever believed Sanders had a shot at winning black voters from Clinton.
Ferrell declined to discuss his time with the Sanders campaign when I reached him for comment. Weaver did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
It’s impossible to say how many black voters Sanders might have swung to his side. But the stakes were clear, said Paul Maslin, a political consultant who has advised six presidential candidates.
“If you’re running for a Democratic nomination and you cannot ultimately win substantial numbers of blacks, browns and older, traditional Democrats over 50 years old—by and large who were Clinton voters, black, white or Latino—it’s very tough to win a nomination.”
Danny Glover echoed Tatem’s complaints. When he joined the campaign in the spring of 2015 as its director for outreach to historically black colleges and universities, he believed he could help pull millions of young black people to the senator’s cause.
As a black progressive, Glover was drawn to Sanders’ message of free public college, dismantling Wall Street, and rectifying economic inequality. Surely, Glover believed, he could get black students to feel the same enthusiasm for Sanders as the young white folks who screamed the senator’s name in packed arenas around the country.
But it didn’t take long for him to feel that the campaign had no real interest in converting young black progressives into a powerful voting bloc that could have made Sanders truly competitive against Clinton.
Glover said he was never given a staff to help him match those crowds of white 20-somethings.
“It was viewed as something that we just had to do,” Glover told me over the phone. “We threw some resources to it to say we did it, but they didn’t put as many people behind it as they should have.”
Glover said that stops were cut from Sanders’ tour of HBCUs after the South Carolina primary, in late February. He said he was told by superiors that there wasn’t enough money to continue them. The Sanders campaign raised $44 million in March, its best performance to date.
Glover also said that campaign money for the HBCU tour always came at the last minute, leaving him scrambling to pay vendors.
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Some black members of Sanders’ staff whom I met covering the campaign told me they felt that “the white boys,” as they put it, including Weaver, did not appreciate how much Sanders needed the black vote to win the nomination.
A visit to Morehouse College in Atlanta, in February, illustrated the campaign’s tendency to fumble when it did try to reach black voters. And the problem was not limited to white members of the campaign staff.
Cathy Tyler, executive director for strategic communications at Morehouse College, told me that a black representative of the Sanders campaign was rude to her staff during the final hours of the rally that took place on campus. (The Sanders campaign also did not respond to a request to address this allegation.)
Tyler said the staffer’s behavior was so bad that she called campaign headquarters in Burlington to complain.
“I’ve done rallies with Vice President Joe Biden a few months before, so I know how to work with Secret Service and I know how to work with advance teams,” she said. “(Bernie’s) team? They were new to the game, I guess.”
A series of last-minute changes to the program she and Glover had worked on for more than two months “caused some chaos.” Tyler said she wanted HBCU students to get ticketed first to enter the event. The campaign refused, she said, and the audience for the rally was mostly white.
“It wasn’t like you were at an HBCU,” Tyler said of the mostly white audience at the rally. “Once you got in that room, it could have been anyplace.”
Moreover, Glover said, the campaign missed an opportunity to work with the black-owned business that was set to do the staging for the rally but, at the campaign’s last-minute request, was switched out.
Glover told me, “This was an opportunity at one of the most prestigious African-American colleges and universities in the country to really build a relationship with their black business community. Who knows what kinds of stories of Bernie Sanders they could have gone out and told, but we chopped it off before it had a chance to materialize. We left a bad taste in their mouths.”
One former Sanders staffer, who spoke to Fusion only on condition of anonymity, told me that the outreach team’s efforts to make inroads with black media were consistently blocked by the campaign. This included denying requests for interviews and access to the campaign, the staffer said.
The staffer said that the campaign feared that engaging black media might expose Sanders’ weakness in articulating how his economics-heavy platform would benefit black voters.
The staffer said that the campaign even tried to block me from covering a visit by Sanders to Atlanta for Fusion because I had reported critically on the senator in the past.
Symone Sanders, the campaign’s former national press secretary, who is black, categorically denied the allegation during a phone interview, and she defended the campaign’s commitment to reaching out to black voters.
“I stand behind the work that the campaign did,” she said. “I’m proud of it. Again, there’s always room for improvement. There are always things that people look back and said we could have done better.”
“People that weren’t on the inside, looking on the outside, everyone can always point fingers,” she went on, “but as a person who was there on the ground, I can tell you that the campaign had a staunch commitment to reaching out to communities of color.”
That same former staffer told me that the Sanders campaign had no real interest in engaging black voters or in reporters who wanted to engage the campaign on issues important to them, such as challenging the union protections that police have when they are accused of killing black people.
“It was always a dog-and-pony show when it came to black outreach,” the former staffer said.
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On Super Tuesday, powered by enormous support among black voters, Clinton swept Sanders in five Southeastern states and took a commanding lead in delegates that she never relinquished.
In Virginia, exit polls showed that Clinton won 84% of the black vote to Sanders’ 16%. In Arkansas, she beat him 91% to 9% among black voters. In Alabama, the margin was 91% to 6%.
Black voters cast their ballots for Clinton so overwhelmingly during the primaries, especially in the South, that their preference for her felt like a warning: Ignore us and we will bury you.
In Southern states that voted on Super Tuesday, even black voters ages 18 to 29—a slice of the electorate that Sanders’ team believed they had a shot at—voted for Clinton 61% to 36%.
And it wasn’t because black people didn’t know him, a lame and intellectually lazy excuse his staffers and surrogates have used for nearly a year. It was, the interviews suggest, because Sanders’ campaign didn’t work hard enough to win their votes.
After the Super Tuesday rout, Weaver dismissed his candidate’s poor showing with black voters by calling the former secretary of state a “regional candidate.” He also said, in what could only be described now as pure delusion, that the campaign was broadening its inroads with black voters.
“It’s not about margins, it’s about making progress,” Weaver said at the time. “There’s a long campaign to go. We are making substantial progress … At this point, in many ways, what we’re confronting is not by race but by age.”
In fact, after Super Tuesday, neither Weaver nor Sanders met with their African-American outreach department to discuss how they could better improve their black outreach efforts, Tatem claims.
The campaign eventually decided it would be important to step up its engagement with black women, but those efforts didn’t begin until May, two months later, Tatem added. “That was very late in the campaign when we started doing things like that,” he said.
By that point, Clinton had also beaten Sanders in a series of Northeastern primaries. In Pennsylvania, Sanders almost tied Clinton with white voters but was trounced among black voters. In New York, they tied among white voters; Clinton won black voters 75% to 25%.
When Sanders made public appeals to black voters, Dowdell said, not only was it late, “It seemed like he did so just because he was pressured into it, which is not a good way to approach anything.”
It is not uncommon for former staffers to complain about what a political campaign could have done to win a race. It is especially common for black campaign staffers to complain that their expertise has been undervalued or outright ignored.
Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who specializes in black Republican politics, told me that the grievances expressed by Sanders’ black former staffers are similar to those she has heard from black people working on Republican campaigns.
She said that Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign for president came to mind: Different party, same complaints.
“They don’t have enough money. No one is paying attention to them,” Rigueur said, characterizing the complaints on the Ford campaign. “There are thousands of letters from black constituents who wrote in to say, ‘I will support Gerald Ford if you just pay attention to black issues.’”
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What makes the accounts of the former Sanders staffers particularly troubling is that the senator, according to his liberal and mostly white supporters, was supposed to be the ideal candidate for black people.
For one, his supporters argue that black people should want no part of Clinton because of her vigorous support of her husband’s disastrous 1994 crime bill (which Sanders voted for, by the way) and 1996 welfare reform.
Sanders supporters also remind us of her assertion that “super-predators” were roaming the streets in the 1990s, comments for which she only expressed some regret this year.
The senator, on the other hand, attended the March on Washington. And if you want visual proof, Sanders supporters often tweet the image of him being arrested at the University of Chicago in 1963.
When black female activists led a disruption at the Netroots Nation progressive political conference last summer, some white people tweeted in defense of Sanders paternalistically, claiming black people simply didn’t know enough about his civil rights record.
The online arrogance become so pronounced that it motivated Roderick Morrow, who runs the comedy podcast “Black Guy Who Tips,” to start the popular hashtag #BernieSoBlack, which mocks Sanders’ supporters’ defense of the senator’s civil rights record.
Tia Oso, one of the Netroots Nation activists, told me that she believes Sanders responded effectively to their demands that he speak more on racial injustice. For example, Sanders published a comprehensive criminal justice reform page on his campaign site, and he did a better job of discussing the intersection of racism and economic justice.
The problem for Oso was that Sanders failed to articulate what the “political revolution” he so often talked about would mean for black people.
“I don’t think what Bernie stands for is out of line with what a lot of black communities and black progressive movements prioritize,” she said. “It’s just that it comes from that dominant white male perspective on what’s really important. An over-emphasis on class struggle, absent racial analysis. And even if we’re talking about class struggle, why is his position on reparations that it’s unrealistic?”
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In January, Sanders traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, for the Brown & Black Presidential Forum, which focuses on issues that matter to minority voters. In an interview backstage, Fusion asked him whether he would support reparations for black people.
He said no: “Its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”
So, we can have free college education, a dismantling of Wall Street, a federal minimum wage of $15 by 2020, 12 weeks of family and medical leave and universal health care, but not even a dialogue about reparations? Even though Sanders himself has supported Holocaust reparations?
Tatem, one of the former Sanders staffers, said that the few times he did get to speak with the candidate, he was a fast study whose heart was in the right place.
“He was very astute,” he said. “And I believe in his heart of hearts he was a sincere to the core with his approach. I believe that had we had more time, if we were talking in 2015, right now, if we had another year at this, this primary would he completely different.”
No matter how sincere Sanders may have been, it didn’t show during critical moments during the primaries.
Of course, black voters are not getting Malcolm X in the White House by supporting Clinton. And they know that. But at least they are getting a candidate they have some relationship with, even if she sometimes has taken a dismissive tone toward black people.
She supported the 1994 crime bill, which led to a huge increase in black incarceration. But I give her credit for recognizing her errors, and today she delivers speeches that reflect on America’s racial past, and that indirectly indict her own flawed racial 1990s politics.
Rembert Browne wrote for New York magazine that Clinton “won Harlem” with a harrowing speech at the National Urban League in February in which she challenged the privilege of her fellow white Americans.
Browne was convinced that Clinton was not trying to bullshit her audience:
Watching a white woman who could be the president of the United States say things like, “For many white Americans, it’s tempting to believe that bigotry is largely behind us. That would leave us with a lot less work, wouldn’t it?” and “Race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind. Now, anyone—anyone asking for your vote has a responsibility to grapple with this reality” is uncharted waters.
I agree with that. Clinton’s frankness on race is rare at the presidential level. If you watch video of her speech, she comes across as very sincere, even if she does not directly indict her own past mistakes about race in America.
Sanders never gave a speech of that magnitude on race.
His lack of dexterity with black audiences showed during his botched response to a simple, yet very important, question at a black forum in Minneapolis hosted by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, on Feb. 12.
Felicia Perry, an African-American woman, said during the Q&A: “I know you’re scared to say black. I know you’re scared to say reparations. But it seems like every time we talk about black people and us getting something for the systematic oppression and exploitation of our people, we have to include every other person of color …”
Then she asked, “Can you please talk about specifically black people and reparations?”
Sanders’ response reminded some people of the language of “All lives matter”: “It’s not just black,” he said in part. “It’s Latino. In some rural areas, it is white.”
Sanders was in a staunchly activist, anti-establishment environment full of people who were very much open to a candidate who wasn’t afraid of speaking truth to power. Yet he didn’t seem able, or willing, to speak about race beyond citing statistics on discrimination against black people.
This is the Black Lives Matter era, a time in which young black people are leading a movement demanding that the powers that be—Sanders included—address the specific plight of African-Americans.
Whether in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, or any other city in which police brutality has taken African-American lives, black young people have sacrificed their jobs, mental health, and freedom to fight a system they feel needs to be overhauled.
For a man who claims our economic system needs an overhaul, Sanders has proposed only moderate approaches to combating police brutality by advocating for community policing and body cameras.
Many young black activists believe that amounts to nothing more than putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Why not call for a broad rethinking of American policing?
And, yes, reparations is a tricky subject to address in American politics, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Not addressing Perry’s question on the subject revealed how limited Sanders’ idealism is when it comes to exploring liberation for black people. He has no problem speaking, ad nauseam, about how America can be more like Denmark. Yet he isn’t bold enough to say black people can get reparations just like Holocaust survivors or Japanese internment victims?
On the economy, Sanders’ idealism on fighting Wall Street and advocacy for free public college education and universal health care doesn’t seem to extend to acknowledging that black people need a special kind of economic boost to come as close as possible to the 40 acres and a mule we were promised after emancipation.
Perry is 36 years old, a year or so out of the so-called millennial age bracket, but her comments reverberated with the anti-establishment vigor that motivates 20-somethings to go for Sanders.
The problem was that he never made young black people feel like they had a place in his revolution.