In his Super Tuesday night speech, Sen. Bernie Sanders characterized his campaign as “an unprecedented grassroots, multigenerational, multiracial movement” that is determined to bring in "working-class people" and take down the “political establishment" and the "corporate establishment" coalescing behind former Vice President Joe Biden. This kind of rhetoric has become a staple of Sanders’ stump speech. The problem is it completely ignores the substantial impact that black voters are having on this presidential primary process.
In America, African Americans have never been a part of the “elite” or “establishment.” If anything, as we were reminded a few days ago in Selma, Alabama, they have played the largest role in our history of upending the establishment in their pursuit of civil rights and equality. Sanders’ rhetorical efforts to cast the Biden coalition as a vehicle for the establishment are racially clumsy at best and outright ignorant at worst.
But that didn't stop him from declaring Wednesday night, during a sit-down with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, that “our campaign is the campaign that speaks to working class people who have long been ignored, where the establishment has turned their backs on them.”
Rich white people did not fuel Joe Biden
Biden’s return to front-runner status wasn’t propelled by rich, white people, it was driven by the black vote. Biden campaign spokesperson Symone Sanders put it best when she tweeted that “people who keep referring to Black voters as ‘the establishment’ are tone deaf and have obviously learned nothing.”
Prior to the South Carolina primary, the Biden campaign appeared to be on life support, due in a part to the absence of black voters in the earliest states. Entrance and exit polls showed white voters made up 91% of the vote in Iowa and 89% in New Hampshire. In Nevada, black voters represented just 11% of the caucus participants. If anything, Sanders’ early strength was driven by a primary calendar that favors the “elites” and “establishment” more than diversity.
South Carolina offered the first truly diverse primary of the year and saw Biden earn a dominant victory propelled by black voters. Exit polls revealed that the former vice president won 61% of black votes in the South Carolina primary while Sanders received just 17%. That trend continued through Super Tuesday. Biden won 72% of black voters in Alabama, 69% in Virginia and 58% in Texas.
In spite of the math, efforts to downplay the impact of black voters on these primaries are already taking shape. Seizing on the Sanders rhetoric, President Donald Trump is transparently trying to fan the flames of dissension. “The Democrat establishment came together and crushed Bernie Sanders, AGAIN!...” he tweeted Wednesday morning.
The Nation’s Elie Mystal offered a more accurate context: “It. Was. NOT. Rigged. Black people VOTING…despite the herculean obstacles placed in their ways by Republican state governments, are not ‘the establishment.”
Arming Trump with racial ammunition
By casting Biden’s supporters as members of the same elite political ruling class, Sanders is marginalizing the voices of black voters while arming Trump and his MAGA-army with ammunition to exacerbate the racial divides in this country. Meanwhile, Sanders has gone up with a new ad that makes it seem like former President Barack Obama is endorsing him.
The new spot is clearly an effort by the Sanders campaign to try to and make some headway with African American voters, but it runs the risk of alienating them even further given Sanders’ complicated record when it comes to Obama. As The Root’s Jason Johnson noted, “Obama cosplay doesn’t work, especially if you tried to primary him in 2012 and portray him as part of the anti-poor political establishment for the last year.”
To this point, Sanders’ entire electability rationale has been based on the false premise that he can attract new, younger voters to the polls and expand the base of the Democratic Party. In Virginia, almost half-a-million more votes were cast in this year’s primary than in 2016, but exit polls revealed that the share of young voters that Sanders is so reliant on actually went down. In fact, the share of young voter participation went down in Alabama, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and even in the Senator’s home state of Vermont.
The bottom line is that Biden’s surge and Sanders’ stagnation have nothing to do with the elite or the establishment or billionaires, and everything to do with actual voters and specifically with people of color finally having the chance to be heard in this process of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee.
Kurt Bardella is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a "Morning Joe" contributor. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sanders claims on working-class voters ignore Biden's black support