Bernie Sanders didn’t just lose the South in the 2016 Democratic primary—he got destroyed in it.
The Vermont senator lost all 11 states that made up the Confederacy to his opponent, Hillary Clinton—and most of them by huge margins. Clinton won by nearly 50 points in South Carolina, almost 60 in Alabama, and a whopping 66 points in Mississippi. In all, Clinton won around 5.1 million votes to Sanders’s estimated 2.5 million. Without such a poor showing in the region, his party’s nomination might have been within Sanders’s reach.
But despite the thorough ass-kicking he received here last year, there’s hope that progressive and leftist candidates can compete against the wave of red that’s washed over the South since the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The unprecedented mobilization of progressives that has followed the election of Donald Trump is providing a historic opportunity to build an organized and formidable American left. But it will take time, investment, and a commitment to the efforts that are already taking place in the South to turn a historically conservative region into a progressive bastion.
As the Democratic primary showed, the left needs to be able to win in the South in order to gain national power. This, however, will require a new approach, one that prioritizes the votes of working-class people of color over those of suburban Republicans losing their stomach for the antics of the Trump administration.
“You’re not gonna win people over in the South with a tweet or a Facebook post,” says Our Revolution’s newly appointed president, Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio and a prominent Sanders surrogate. “It’s getting out there and pressing the flesh and listening to people’s hopes and dreams…. we have to work and have stronger efforts to not just say people need decent wages or a decent place to live, but good wages and a good place to live.”
Bernie Sanders may be the most popular politician in the country today, but his defeat across the South should have been a wake-up call for the left. Future candidates must learn from his missteps if they’re serious about winning.
The national presidential campaign didn’t invest as many resources here as in other states. For example, Sanders essentially wrote off the South Carolina primary (with the exception of a few last-minute events the week before) in favor of campaigning in March-primary states like Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Ohio.