To Win in South, Bernie May Need to Tone Down the Revolutionary Zeal

Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton by 10 points in Iowa, and a whopping 22 points in New Hampshire, but is trailing Clinton by 23 points in South Carolina, according to the latest polls at RealClearPolitics.com.

Campaigning has barely started in South Carolina. But it is still fair to ask: Why such a divergence?

One answer may be that Iowa and New Hampshire have a lot of diehard liberals fed up with the status quo, folks who are chomping at the bit to break the centrist mold and support a candidate who will stand-up for more progressive policies on issues such as campaign finance reform, regulation of banks and financial services, stagnating wages, unfair tax policies, and skyrocketing costs of drugs and education, among other issues.

Or, as Charles M. Blow eloquently put it in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Sanders’ message of revolutionary change to save a flailing middle class and challenge the sprawling influence of what he calls ‘the billionaire class’ has struck a nerve with a fervid following.”

But in South Carolina, according to the article, African Americans make-up more than half of Democratic primary voters, and the polls suggest the Sanders message is not yet resonating in the Palmetto state, particularly with black voters.

It is early – the South Carolina primary is not until February 27 – and the Sanders’ campaign is not yet fully ramped up. But it may also have something to do with economic status – many African Americans in South Carolina – like a lot of Democrats across the South and elsewhere – are more focused on bread-and-butter economic and social issues – and perhaps a little wary of the “revolutionary” zeal with which Sanders approaches many issues such as the need to take on “the billionaire class” and reign in the “Wall Street Banks”.

In the NYT article, Sanders said his organization would be reaching out aggressively to bring African-American and Latino communities into his campaign. He also blamed the media for being too consumed by political theatrics, and not widely reporting on the substance of his message, such as when he talks about issues like high unemployment rates among African-American youth.

Certainly, there are huge issues with the way the media generally conducts itself, as discussed in a recent TDV blog. But a reasonable reading of the South Carolina polls compared to Iowa and New Hampshire suggest the Sanders’ campaign might want to think about toning down the rhetoric a little to focus its message more positively on the core issues affecting people’s everyday lives – for example, how to fix a broken economy and stimulate wage and jobs growth for everyday Americans, minority and otherwise.

These are issues we know Sanders cares about deeply – and has thoughtful positions on – but sometimes the positive message of change seems to get lost in the revolutionary zeal of his campaign rhetoric.