Bernie Sanders dodges Rachel Maddow's questions about struggles with black voters in the South

MSNBC host Craig Melvin also asks if a recent ad from the Sanders campaign featuring President Obama is misleading

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 5, 2020 9:34PM (EST)

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dodged questions from MSNBC host Rachel Maddow about his struggles with black voters in the South by asserting that he performs well with "people of color" overall. 

Sanders also claimed that his rival for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, owes his overwhelming support from black voters to the fact that he worked for the first black president, Barack Obama.

"Let me just give you the other side of the story — is that in California, if my memory is correct — we received 39% of the votes of people of color, which were Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans," Sanders told Maddow on Wednesday after she asked about his struggle with black voters. "If I am not mistaken ― I haven't studied these results ― we probably won the young people, young people African American vote, probably in all of those states."

The term "people of color" has become popular in recent years and refers to a number of minority groups. But its use erases the experiences that are unique to the black community.

Sanders found himself in hot water earlier this week after making comments that some interpreted as minimizing the importance of the black voters who backed Biden. After the Vermont senator said Wednesday at a news conference that Biden was performing well because of the support of the "corporate establishment," Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a co-chair of Biden's campaign, told reporters that "I just did not know African Americans in the South were considered part of the establishment."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., echoed those thoughts, telling reporters that "to say that African American voters in the South are the establishment is not only untrue . . . it's insulting."

Maddow pressed Sanders on his specific issues with connecting with black voters, pointing out that he did poorly among that voting bloc in California (the delegate-rich state Sanders is projected to win), as well as in the Southern states (which Biden won in a sweep).

"Look, we're running a campaign against somebody who has touted his relationship with Barack Obama for eight years," Sanders told Maddow. "Barack Obama is enormously popular in this country in general and in the African American community. Running against Hillary Clinton ― Bill Clinton was enormously popular. So I don't think if you look at some of the national polls ― in fact, there have been some polls recently ― that we were running ahead of Biden in the African American community. So it's not that I'm not popular. Biden is now running with his ties to Obama, and that's working."

A Biden spokesperson called Sanders' comments "revealing" and criticized the senator's campaign for releasing a "disingenuous" advertisement touting purported support from Obama.

"These are revealing comments, since Sen. Sanders just released a disingenuous ad about his relationship with President Obama that fact-checkers quickly criticized for taking the president out of context," Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign's director of rapid response, told Salon by email. 

The ad in question included words from Obama from three different occasions — one from a Politico interview in 2016, one from a speech in Vermont in 2006 and one from the 2016 Democratic National Convention. In them, Obama describes Sanders as "somebody who has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion and is fearless."

MSNBC host Craig Melvin called out the ad Thursday on air, asking Sanders' deputy campaign manager Ari Rabin-Havt: "How is that not misleading?"

A controversial anti-Biden ad from a pro-Trump super PAC last week was also criticized for taking Obama's words out of context. Obama sent a cease-and-desist letter over the spot, which misleadingly used the former president's words to suggest that practiced "plantation politics."

The Sanders ad seems to suggest that the Obama supports the Vermont senator, even though the former president has refused to endorse a candidate in the primary. Obama has had a rocky relationship with Sanders after reportedly telling Democratic donors to unite behind Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries and expressing concerns about Sanders' candidacy in the 2020 cycle.

Bates added, "Joe Biden is very much running on his record as vice president working with President Obama to deliver the most progressive changes in generations, like passing the Affordable Care Act and taking unprecedented action to invest in clean energy and fight climate change."

While Sanders and several other Democratic presidential candidates have criticized Obama as they advance their own progressive policy proposals, Biden has repeatedly aligned his candidacy with his former boss and cited his experiences working alongside him among his qualifications for office. 

Salon has also reached out to the Sanders campaign for comment.

You can watch the full segment below via MSNBC:

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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