At a press conference in Columbia this week, South Carolina state representative Justin Bamberg, one of six Democratic state legislators in the state who has endorsed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, began his pitch for the Vermont socialist with an undeniable truth. "For those of you who do not know," he said, "poverty sucks."
South Carolina, a deep-red state that hasn't voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, has seen its fair share of poverty: 18 percent of households in the state are in poverty, and 27 percent of South Carolina children live below the poverty line, putting the state in the bottom 20 percent of the country in those categories. Theoretically, Sanders, with his relentless message railing against economic inequality, should be resonating in a state that has experienced rising levels of inequality in the past decade.
Still, few think that the Vermont senator has much of a chance when South Carolina's Democratic primary voters head to the polls on Saturday: according to the most recent averages compiled by RealClearPolitics, Sanders is running 24 percent behind Clinton in the state. "I think Sanders has to stay close," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of polling at Quinnipiac University, "acknowledging he probably can't win."
As pundits and pollsters have noted, Sanders' struggle to break through in South Carolina have a lot to do with his struggles winning support among black voters, who make up roughly half of the Democratic electorate here. Clinton has been pushing a message of racial justice on the campaign trail in South Carolina, and enjoys strong support from black political leaders in the state.
Sanders knows he has little chance of overtaking Clinton. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to make up ground. On Friday, he rallied voters at Claflin University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, in the central part of the state. And in the Upstate region, a group of counties in the northwest part of South Carolina, his supporters are hopeful that he can at least close the gap on Clinton enough to keep up his campaign's momentum going into Super Tuesday.
In Greenville, the largest city in the Upstate, the senator's field organizers think he can make a sizable push against Clinton in an area that's more rural and white than other parts of the state. South Carolina awards 35 of its 59 delegates proportionally based on the results in each of its seven congressional districts, so even if Sanders is defeated soundly in the primary, there's an opportunity for him to pick up some delegates if he can win in cities like Greenville, and the surrounding areas.
"When we got in this race, a lot of people were telling us in South Carolina that he shouldn't be here," said Chris Covert, who's leading Sanders' campaign here. Of Sanders' perceived lack of connection with black voters so far in the primary, Covert points out that Sanders has made huge gains with this demographic since getting into the race. "We started at zero percent, now we're in the high 20s and the 30s," he argues. "We just want to continue to close the gaps."
Heading into the home stretch of the South Carolina campaign, Sanders' field office in Greenville was an upbeat operation. In a strip mall office, about a dozen smiling volunteers were making calls to potential supporters, ringing a bell and cheering each time someone confirmed another vote for Sanders. Cass Odum and Devan Yates, a pair of field organizers who came from Atlanta to campaign for Sanders, told me they've been following the Senator's career for a long time. "I remember being in seventh grade and a teacher telling me about a socialist mayor," Yates recalled. "I always thought it was a far out thing."
Odum, who put her life in Atlanta on hold to come work for Sanders in South Carolina. She told me that she's encountered many people in Greenville who tell her that her candidate is a lost cause in this state. "I always whisper to them, "Your neighbor down the street is [for Sanders], and you might not know it," she laughed.
Joanna Rose-Pigate, a volunteer who's been driving around the city in her red Toyota Prius, campaigning for Sanders, said she was inspired to volunteer for Sanders while listening to a livestream of his Sunday rally in Greenville on her phone. She said she was spurred by his eonomic message, especially regarding minimum wage. "I did a budget analysis for myself, and I found that you need $15 to live. There's no other way," she says. "I think we should help each other out, and I do think people should work…I just want them to be paid for that work."
Rose-Pigate is an outgoing, friendly—one of the many people the Sanders campaign has inspired to get involved in the political process. Describing herself as a lifelong Democrat dating back to her upbringing in Buffalo, New York, she says she's never canvassed for a candidate before Sanders. When I ask her about her fellow New Yorker, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, she doesn't mince words. "He's a liar, a manipulator, a crook, a brat, and a child," she replied with no hesitation whatsoever. "If you look at his business record, he's a failure."
The Sanders supporters I spoke to are all there for different reasons. David Poteat, a young, excited Sanders supporter, says he only heard about Sanders for the first time a few weeks ago, and said he was drawn to Sanders because of his stance on education. "I'm buried under thousands of dollars of student loan debt," Poteat said, "and he [Sanders] wants to make education accessible for every single American…that's just groundbreaking."
Phil Davis, an older man who says he spent most of his life in New York City before retiring to his hometown in South Carolina, said that Sanders is the only candidate talking about climate change. "I think in the long term, it's going to be more consequential than anything else."
The Sanders backers say that when they encounter Donald Trump supporters who harbor similar anger at the government's failures, there's a "weird overlap." Trump, who took all 50 of South Carolina's delegates away from his win here last Saturday, won Greenville County with 27 percent of the vote. "There are some Trump supporters who just loathe Bernie," Yates said.
"But then there are some that we've all run into who like Bernie," he laughed. "There's one guy at a sandwich shop down the street who has told everyone in the office at one point or another that 'we need to tell Bernie to run with Trump.'"
It's clear that the economic anxieties of the working class have fueled the rise of two outsider candidates in this election, even if Sanders and Trump have nothing else in common. If Hillary Clinton is to win the primary and should try to gain the full backing of the people who have made the Sanders campaign tick—from Bamberg, the state lawmaker, to the volunteers here in Greenville—she'll have a lot of work to do in convincing them that her brand of governing can work for them.
When Rose-Pigate finally finds someone willing to talk to her about the presidential race, it's an elderly man named Joel. "I'll be honest with you, I already made my decision," he said. "I voted for Kasich last week, because I'm so anti-Trump." (South Carolina has an open primary system, meaning that voters can choose which of the two party's primaries to vote in.)
A Democrat, Joel said that he has a "lot in common" with Sanders, and that as a younger man his political views were further to the left. He told Rose-Pigate that he likes Clinton's foreign policy experience, but there's a "trust factor." "I agree!" Rose-Pigate explained.
After we bid farewell to Joel and get back into the Prius, I asked Rose-Pigate Joanna if she'll support Clinton if she's the Democratic nominee. "Hell no," she said. "Even if Clinton is running against Trump?" I pressed. "No!" she repeats. "I'll vote for Jill Stein!"
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