Bernie Sanders' Dig At Southern Democrats Was Ill-Advised For A Whole Bunch Of Reasons

At the Democratic debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders dismissed Hillary Clinton’s string of primary victories in southern states, explaining that the South “is the most conservative part of the country.” On Friday, Bill Clinton criticized Sanders for the remark, because, as Bill explained, “Democrats need to win Florida and North Carolina not only to get elected.” Bill is right: Sanders’ dig at southern Democrats was ill-advised, and not only for the reason the former president gave.

“Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South,” Sanders said at the debate. “We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact.”

The former president and southern native responded a day later at an event in the Bronx.

“Oh it's just the South. We know how conservative they are,” Bill said, mocking Sanders. “Well excuse me, but Democrats need to win Florida and North Carolina not only to get elected, but they are states of the future — highly diverse. And she won a big victory there.”

Bill makes a good point. Very broadly speaking, the South generally votes Republican, but southerners are nonetheless part of the Democratic coalition. In fact, no Democrat has been elected president in over 100 years without winning at least two southern states in the general election. And as Bill hinted, there are a couple of southern states — Texas and Georgia primarily — that have the potential to turn blue within a decade, so it would be very unwise for Democrats to write off the region entirely.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What’s more, Sanders’ comment was disingenuous. The South is more conservative than the rest of the country, yes, but that’s because it has a lot more Republicans than Democrats. Southern Democrats, on the other hand, are just as liberal as their counterparts elsewhere in the country, and needless to say, it was these voters who gave Clinton decisive wins in Southern primaries. The existence of conservative Republicans in the South is irrelevant to the outcome of the region’s Democratic primaries.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that Clinton has been winning in the South largely because black Democrats vote for her by overwhelming margins. She won 82 percent of the black vote in Tennessee, 88 percent in Arkansas, 83 percent in Georgia, and 86 percent in South Carolina. Sanders probably wasn’t intending to downplay the significance of black voters in the Democratic coalition, but that’s what he ended up doing.

In all fairness to Sanders, he does have to come up with some explanation for why he’s been so weak in the South, since it’s a topic he’s asked about frequently. Unfortunately, this was not the right explanation.