Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., on Oct. 3. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Democrats have long depended on minority voters. That's really been true since at least the late 1960s. Lose those voters, and Democrats lose, period.

And while Hillary Clinton polls well with black voters in most states, the other leading candidate for the Democratic nomination has long struggled with this key demographic. Mightily.

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We're talking, of course, about Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont currently found behind podiums speaking to 20,000-person-plus, overwhelmingly white crowds.

Hence, Sanders is in Ebony magazine this month. One of his black female campaign advisers, Symone Sanders (no relation), was in Essence magazine in August. (In case you don't know, Ebony and Essence are two of the nation's most widely circulated magazine's targeting black readers.) And the fact that both the headlines above the Sanders campaign-related stories implore the readership to "meet" the subject kind of says it all.

You see, despite Sanders's momentum nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire, he's still failing to reach minority voters. In South Carolina, the only early primary state with a large black population, Sanders claimed 3 percent of black voters' support (if Vice President Biden is factored into the equation) in a CNN/ORC poll released this week.

Amazingly, while Sanders actually leads Clinton among white voters, he trails by 55 points among African Americans — who currently swing the state for Clinton.


So, what's going on? Well, like so many big problems, you have to break it into bits.

Bernie who? From where? Oh, that guy running against Hillary Clinton?

Sanders might have been in Congress since 1991 and in possession of one of Vermont's U.S. Senate seats since 2007. He might be the only self-identified socialist in Congress and running on the Democratic ticket. But he's also a man from one of the whitest states in one of the whitest three-state regions of the United States. In Vermont, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos and those who identify as two races or more together make up just 6.8 percent of the state's population. That's how white it is.

Sanders has a strong voting record on issues that poll well with African Americans. But, he isn't someone many black people know, have been exposed to and, because of the racially insular nature of most Americans' social networks, wasn't someone most black Americans had heard of until he became a presidential candidate. It is, in many ways, no different than the share of white readers who before reading this had limited if any knowledge of Ebony and Essence magazines. Now they know a little. Most black voters are, at best, in the getting-to-know-you phase of things with Sanders, too.

All that might put Sanders in a position not much different than the legion of other men and two women running for the White House right now. But he happens to be running against Hillary Clinton, a woman who is not just a known commodity to most voters — whether they love her or loathe her — but a woman married to a widely beloved former president, held in high esteem by many black voters and the first woman with a serious shot at the White House.

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Activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups interrupted Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley during a Netroots Nation event in Phoenix. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Grumpy Bernie has a script and likes to stick to it. 

Sanders likes to talk about economic inequality. That's a subject that polls well with Democratic-leaning voters. It's also a subject that by just about every measure and potential cause affects African-American voters more severely than others. That's just a fact.

But here's the thing: Sanders has stuck to his script about economic inequality and wealth hoarding in the wake of a series of rather high-profile deaths of young, unarmed black men. So, for most black voters, the limited value of economic and even history-making political gains in the person of President Obama has never been more clear. Unless some kind of national attention is paid to what is currently a more pressing and existential issue for many African Americans, other gains seem tenuous at best. One cannot vote or grow a bank account if one is dead.

But when the now-notoriously grumpy Sanders showed up at Netroots Nation and then again on the campaign trail in the weeks that followed the biggest days of the Black Lives Matter protests, he threatened to and sometimes actually walked out on public gatherings because of Black Lives Matter protesters. This bothered more than a few black Americans.

When he and his campaign staff tried to explain those scenes as a failure of protesters to understand Sanders's record of civil rights activism in the 1960s, things got worse. It was as if they were saying, "Sanders has already done enough for you people. Now, let him talk about important stuff. And please don't disrupt grown people while they are talking."

Sanders, like a lot of white Americans and certainly some of the other people running for the White House, hasn't demonstrated a great deal of ability or comfort treating black people like full-fledged voting citizens who matter. All indications from his campaign are that he's trying.

We'll see during Tuesday's debate how much of that shows.