Sanders making gains with black voters ahead of South Carolina contest, top state officials say

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s Democratic Party chairman and a conservative U.S. senator here both agree that Sen. Bernie Sanders is resonating with African-American voters as Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary in the Palmetto State closes in.

Sanders – the populist senator from Vermont who’s making his second straight White House run – got his clock cleaned by eventual nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. Thanks to her dominance with black voters, Clinton topped Sanders by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

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But fast forward four years and Sanders – now the front-runner due to a win in New Hampshire’s primary and a rout of his rivals in last weekend’s Nevada caucuses – is resonating with black voters, who make up roughly 60 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate in South Carolina.

“You started to see a significant shift within the African-American voter base towards Bernie Sanders, especially as you look at the results in Nevada,” GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina told Fox News.

And Scott – the only black Republican in the Senate – emphasized that “I think it's game on for the Sanders campaign, which is bad news for the Biden campaign.”

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson is also giving Sanders credit.

“I think one of the most fascinating things is that Bernie Sanders appears to have learned from his loss from 2016 in South Carolina,” Robertson told reporters on Thursday.

Robertson spotlighted that top Sanders surrogates in South Carolina “have done a very good job of trying to make sure that Senator Sanders did not forsake smaller venues with small numbers of people of color for let’s say three or four thousand people.”

That could spell trouble for former Vice President Joe Biden. Thanks in part to his eight years as the right-hand man to President Barack Obama – America’s first black president – Biden remains popular with black voters. And after disappointing fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign is predicting a victory in South Carolina – to reenergize his White House bid and catapult him into the 14 Super Tuesday states that hold contests three days after South Carolina’s primary.

But Robertson said that when he looks at the Sanders campaign, “you can see a very concerted effort and I think it’s one of the reasons that he has been able to put pressure on former Vice President Joe Biden in South Carolina…It appears the Sanders campaign has had the ability to not only learn from 2016 but has adapted and implemented those changes. I think it’s benefitting him very much.”

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Both Robertson and Scott also credit billionaire former hedge fund manager turned environmental and progressive advocate Tom Steyer for stepping up efforts to reach black voters in South Carolina.

“The question in South Carolina is the impact of Tom Steyer in the primary on Saturday,” Scott noted.

And Robertson said “it appears he resonates very well. He’s very personable. ... I’m not going to be surprised if Steyer wins a delegate or two.”

And he predicted that if Sanders and Steyer do well, it takes a bite out of Biden’s support among older black voters.

But the latest poll here indicated Biden retains a large advantage among African-Americans.

A Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic presidential primary voters in South Carolina conducted Monday through Wednesday showed Biden earning the support of 45 percent of black voters, with Steyer at 17 percent and Sanders at 13 percent.

And Biden continued to lead by a large margin overall in the state.

Fox News' Lindsay Carlton contributed to this report.