BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The face of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was frozen, mouth agape, right when he seemed to be making his point. The 19 people in the media room of Cara McClure’s apartment groaned then chatted among themselves.
“It’s a conspiracy,” said John Harrison, an activist and cartoonist, half-joking. “Who owns ABC? The same people who own Fox?”
McClure fiddled with the connection, thankful at least that Sanders's state director Kelvin Datcher — and some local TV reporters — had already come and gone. Her watch party, one of two in the Birmingham area, was by far the biggest in a state that is expected, with its March 1 primary, to help Hillary Clinton close the book on Sanders. It was only some solace that the TV stream, when it worked, kept showing a larger and more boisterous Sanders party in New Hampshire.
"It's a real uphill battle here," said Juanita Juarez, who had helped gather signatures to put Sanders on the ballot in Alabama. "There's a lot of name recognition to get past. People know Hillary; the first time I talk to people about Bernie is usually the first time I've heard about him."
The problem, one that the Sanders campaign is still puzzling over, is how a democratic socialist who has never had to win black voters breaks through after Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2008, once Barack Obama defeated Clinton in Iowa, black voters in Southern states sprinted to his side. What had been competitive races in states like South Carolina and Alabama broke decisively for Obama.
Sanders, of course, is white. So were most of the people at the watch party. While the campaign has plans to open three grass-roots offices in Alabama, and while the candidate has stumped in the state, the black vote has not yet moved away from Clinton. In the RealClearPolitics average of South Carolina polling, Clinton leads Sanders by 45 points, greater than any lead she'd held over Obama. (South Carolina-born John Edwards also complicated the 2008 race.) In Alabama, according to the 2008 exit poll, Clinton won a commanding 76 percent of white Democrats. She lost because they were outnumbered by black Democrats, 83 percent of whom voted for Obama.
Like the supporters of any insurgent candidate, the Bernie fans in Birmingham were confident that the people who met him would love him. McClure, for example, was a Black Lives Matter activist who knew Sanders had the most comprehensive police and justice reform plans. It just didn't seem to her as if the media was going to play fair about anything, and ask about what mattered.
The shunting of the debate to Saturday — the second time this had happened — was read as a power play from a biased Democratic National Committee. There was less grumbling about the fast-moving scandal over voter data leaks than was reported at other watch events. The problem,as they saw it, was that Sanders kept nailing it, and getting cut off. From their seats in an apartment complex's movie theater-style rec room, they cheered for what they could and groaned when a winning run was ended by moderators.
"They're pushing the conversation," Juarez said. "They're cutting off what anyone's actually saying."
When Sanders could speak, the room cheered for him.
"Women should not be making $0.79 on the dollar," he said.
"Yaaaaaaas!" shouted one supporter
"Preach it now, Bernie!" shouted another.
When the candidates started talking about college affordability, only Sanders seemed ready to criticize the greed at the heart of the problem.
"I understand that there are a heck of a lot of university vice presidents who make a big salary," he said.
"Yes, Bernie!" said one of the younger supporters.
Outside the room, pundits were deciding that Clinton erred by claiming Donald Trump made cameos in an Islamic State propaganda video — not true — and that she was too sanguine about the threat of the Islamic State. None of that rattled the room in Birmingham. "I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change," Sanders said. After the applause, and after a commercial break, a National Guard volunteer and pastor named Charles Perry said that the foreign policy discussion had been a little too glib.
"The thing that I'm really disappointed about not seeing, from anyone, is talk about really getting to the root causes of terrorism," Perry said. "That's about bringing the support base of the terrorists into the second or first world. You provide a decent economy for those people, and the breeding ground for terrorism goes away."
The debate lasted longer than expected, long past 9 p.m. local time. McClure kept up the room's energy by using every pause — commercial or glitch-related — to record a short video, or a pan of the cheering supporters. "I'm for Bernie because he's the only candidate who addressed campaign finance reform," said one of them, into a smartphone.
When it was all over, and ABC cut away from the closing statements, the crowd quickly found the exits. Everyone who wanted a grass-roots organizing duty had found one. McClure and Juarez took over the task of cleaning the rec room, removing the plates of wings, cheeses and Christmas pastries. The room was speckless, one of the nicer features of the complex. McClure had moved here, she said, after spending months crashing with relatives. She had been homeless, after a marriage ended. She did not know when she'd find a home again, until her son pointed her to ad for people who wanted to help other people find apartments.
"Ten minutes into that interview, I just felt a revelation," McClure said. "This was what I was meant to do. This was the perfect job."
Convincing people to make a big change, to improve their lives had come easy to her. She was trying to do the same for Bernie Sanders. All she needed were two and a half months and thousands more voters.