WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A visit to a post-service buffet-style dinner at a large Baptist church here Sunday underscored the challenges Bernie Sanders faces in courting the African American vote in the upcoming South Carolina primary.
Making his first campaign stop since losing the Nevada caucuses to Hillary Clinton, Sanders was politely received as he made his way among the tables in a crowded dining room of about 300 churchgoers, shaking hands and posing for photos.
But when Sanders was granted a few minutes to speak to the gathering, the enthusiasm level fell well short of what he’s used to when addressing his large-scale rallies. Some people were attentive, while others continued working their way through the buffet line or watching the Michigan-Maryland basketball game that was showing on a large screen on one side of the room.
Sanders began his brief remarks by talking not about his core message of income equality, but about criminal justice.
“We have in America today a broken criminal justice system,” the Vermont senator said. “This is America. We should not be having more people in jail, largely African American and Latino, than any other country on Earth. So one of the points that I am trying to make is we are going to invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails, not more incarceration.”
His biggest applause line came a moment later, when he mentioned President Obama, who remains hugely popular among African Americans.
“We have an economy today that thankfully is a lot better than it was seven years ago, thanks to President Obama,” Sanders said, adding that much remains to be done in the fight against poverty.
When Obama won the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2008 over Clinton, more than half the electorate was African American. This year, polls have showed Clinton with a large lead in the Palmetto State, in no small part because of her better standing among black voters.
Sanders was accompanied here Sunday by Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP leader, who has endorsed him.
“This is the most important place in the country right now, and you are the most important voters in the country right now,” Jealous told the crowd. “There are people who will say to you, you know there’s a dreamer running for president, and his dreams are so big, y’all shouldn’t dream that big, but in our community when they tell us not to dream big, we say, ‘Yes we can.’ ”
While there were some Sanders supporters in the room, his challenge between now and Saturday will be to woo voters leaning toward Clinton.
In some cases, it’s already too late.
Walter Butler, a pastor and college professor from nearby Lexington, S.C., said he took advantage of South Carolina’s absentee voting option and cast his ballot for Clinton.
“I think she has good experience,” said Butler, 65. “She’s been in politics, and she has an asset in being married to a former president.”
Butler said he has nothing against Sanders, saying, “I know him a little bit.”
“I think Senator Sanders is a great man,” Butler said. “I just don’t think he’s the man for this time.”