Months before he became a household name, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders sat down in a small conference room at the Charlotte Convention Center.
He’d just spoken to an American Legion convention and, switching gears, explained why he’d started making appearances in states with early presidential contests.
“I think the average American is a lot more frustrated with the establishment than a lot of people perceive,” he told me in August 2014. “There’s receptivity for voices that are going to speak for a working class that is being battered.”
He was nothing if not prescient.
As he heads to the Carolinas this weekend, Sanders has seen his insurgent campaign surge in key polls and attract arena-sized crowds to his rallies.
“The reason that we are doing much, much better than anybody anticipated is people are responding to the message that we’re bringing forth,” Sanders said Tuesday. “There’s something fundamentally wrong when the middle class continues to disappear and almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent. And people understand that. The average American is working longer hours for lower wages.”
Sanders, who turned 74 on Tuesday, will speak Saturday night at Rock Hill’s Winthrop University and Sunday night at Greensboro Coliseum.
Though national polls show him trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by often-wide margins, he leads her in New Hampshire and is gaining ground in Iowa, according to recent polls. He’s drawn bigger crowds than any Democratic candidate: 19,000 in Portland, nearly 28,000 in Los Angeles.
That’s why The New York Times reported this week that Clinton is banking on a Southern firewall. South Carolina Democrats vote Feb. 27. Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia hold an “SEC primary” on March 1.
North Carolina tentatively plans a March 15 vote.
To compete in those states, Sanders will have to do something he doesn’t have to do in Iowa or New Hampshire: Win African-American votes. In 2008, 55 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters were black.
“That demographic is not matched by the crowds at Bernie Sanders’ events,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political scientist. “The simple fact is in South Carolina, if you can’t make significant inroads with black primary voters, you’re just not going to have any success in the Democratic primary.”
Sanders is convinced he can – and will. He believes once those voters get to know him, his record on civil rights and his support for the middle class and helping people rise to the middle class, he’ll do well.
“It’s fair to say there are many, many people in the African-American community who do not know who Bernie Sanders is,” the candidate said. “When (they hear) what we are talking about, what we are fighting for, you’ll see more support.”
Before his Winthrop rally, Sanders will have spoken at Columbia’s historically black Benedict College and in Florence. He’ll be accompanied by black scholar Cornel West.
“We stand a good chance to do very well … in New Hampshire and Iowa; we can do well in Nevada,” Sanders said. “And I think we’re going to do a lot better than people think in South Carolina.”