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Bernie Sanders struggles with black voters in South Carolina

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ORANGEBURG, South Carolina — It was a tough sell for a political candidate: rainy, chilly and the distraction of Saturday college football games. But Elizabeth Jones and her husband, Robert, drove through the dark weekend evening to see Bernie Sanders at the South Carolina State University auditorium.

“Our daughter is madly crazy about Bernie Sanders and she said, ‘Mom you’ve gotta go,'” Jones said. “She really loves him, for what he stands for. We came here to see ourselves.”

The Vermont senator is playing catch-up to Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, and it’s an uphill battle with fewer than a 100 days from South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Sanders is using a jam-packed, three-day stop in the Palmetto State to try to bolster support among African-American voters, a demographic that he’s losing sharply to Hillary Clinton.

A Winthrop University poll out on November 4 showed that an overwhelming majority of South Carolina Democratic primary voters back Clinton: 71% to Sanders’ 15% support. Clinton’s support is even stronger in the African-American community, where she sweeps with 80% support among likely voters.

On the trail, Sanders urges that “black lives matter,” and in South Carolina so do black votes.

Winthrop University polling director Scott Huffmon has said of the voting bloc that, “African-Americans can make up over 50% of the Democratic Presidential Primary vote in South Carolina, which is a much larger portion than you’ll see in the Iowa Caucus or New Hampshire primary.”

Sanders himself is not oblivious to the polling. During a gaggle with reporters outside of the state party on Saturday, Sanders said he knows it’ll be hard to close the very wide gap with African-American voters in South Carolina.

“We have our work cut out for us here in South Carolina, but when I began this campaign, I would bet that 80-90% of the people in South Carolina didn’t even know who Bernie Sanders was,” he said, referring to himself in the third person.

His African-American supporters in the state agree that name recognition remains his biggest challenge. Sedona Tate, a 22-year-old Sanders supporter in Columbia, says that Bill Clinton boosts Hillary’s visibility in the state.

“A lot of people recognize him, so they think that she’s going bring a lot of things that he brought to the presidency, but I just don’t see it happening,” Tate said.

Robert Jones pointed to the long Clinton legacy in South Carolina.

“(Sanders) has to reach out to the black community. It’s one of those things that Hillary has been vocal, Hillary has been present here. Now we’re ready to say, this is a new time,” Jones said.

On Saturday at a 20/20 Leaders of America forum at Allen University, Sanders again presented his criminal reform policy proposals countering “the really disastrous effects of too many politicians trying to win too many elections by locking too many people up.”

And at the historically black college, he didn’t mince words about who bears the brunt of what he views as bad policy.

“People in American jails are disproportionately people of color. That’s the reality in America today. That’s a reality that has to change,” Sanders said.

The notion of criminal justice reform as resonating with black voters is not lost on Sanders’ South Carolina team. The campaign released a radio ad in the second week of November, specifically targeted to black communities and voiced by Reg Cathey, who played the character Freddy on “House of Cards.”

“We’ve had a lot of good conversations at the doors and on the phones about the ad. People want to learn more about his stance on criminal justice and the $15 minimum wage. It’s been a great help to us here in the last couple of weeks,” says Chris Covert, Sanders’ South Carolina state director.

Corey Staley, 32, remains optimistic that Sanders can win the first-in-the South primary.

“I think the difference is popularity versus the message. If you listen to Bernie’s message, it’s obvious you should vote for Bernie. From the middle class on down, no matter what ethnicity you are, what race, it should be Bernie Sanders,” he said at the Columbia rally.

Sanders also made two appearances at African-American churches in North Charleston on Sunday, visiting Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church and Royal Missionary Baptist Church. Sanders spoke briefly at each stop.