Washington, D.C. — It was meant to be Bernie Sanders’s chance to demonstrate his familiarity with the issues facing African Americans. But when Sanders met with civil-rights leaders at the National Urban League’s D.C. headquarters on Thursday, all eyes were on Al Sharpton.
The reverend had participated in a similar gathering with Hillary Clinton earlier in the week, and seemed to suggest then that Clinton had already earned his endorsement. “Only you know, and you’re not telling,” he said playfully, pointing to Clinton as they left their Harlem meeting on Tuesday.
That exchange gave the wrong impression, Sharpton says Thursday. “I told her and Sanders that I was not making an endorsement until after we have put forward what is in our interest as a community,” he tells National Review, saying he wants the issues to take precedence over the horse race — at least for now.
Still, it looks almost certain that Sharpton will endorse one of the two remaining Democratic candidates. And he made it abundantly clear Thursday that he plans to use his clout with the African American community on behalf of whomever he ultimately chooses to support. When National Urban League president Marc Morial stressed that the leaders in attendance represented non-partisan organizations that do not endorse a candidate, Sharpton was quick to add a caveat. “Even though each organization does not endorse, some of us may individually,” he said. He later told reporters he’d be making up his mind between Clinton and Sanders “in the next day or so.”
RELATED: Coming to Hillary’s Rescue?
“He has the ear of black America,” says Dominic Hawkins, a Sharpton spokesman, pointing out that the reverend is syndicated in over 40 media markets, “including many in South Carolina.” Though he says Sharpton could still decide to forgo a “formal endorsement,” Hawkins promises that the reverend has every intention of using his public platform to influence the Democratic race’s outcome in South Carolina and beyond.
The timing of Thursday’s meeting is no accident. It comes one week after Sanders met privately with Sharpton in New York City, two days after Clinton met with an almost-identical group of leaders, and just over one week before South Carolina Democrats vote on February 27. Black voters make up 55 percent of the Palmetto State’s Democratic electorate, meaning endorsements from African-American leaders — especially those as well known and influential as Sharpton — are a precious commodity there.
#share#Unlike Clinton, who threw a pointed jab about “single-issue candidates” during her own meeting with Sharpton on Tuesday, Sanders didn’t mention his opponent on Thursday, even by implication. And those black leaders present stressed they weren’t seeking to play the candidates off each other. “We don’t want to get into, today, any relative comparisons, or any grading of the responses by either candidate,” said Morial in a press conference. “I think this really is designed to push into their thinking. The true test will be if we hear on the campaign trail, if we hear in the conversations, some of the things we’ve talked about today.”
But despite the outward veneer of impartiality, many black leaders privately say they’re considering an endorsement as the race tightens. “You see more and more African-American leaders that are starting to qualify: ‘My organization doesn’t endorse, [but that] doesn’t mean I can’t endorse,’” says one black civil rights leader. “It’s picking up.”
Despite the outward veneer of impartiality, many black leaders privately say they’re considering an endorsement as the race tightens.
Even so, it’s not clear what effect an endorsement from Sharpton, Morial, or another leader will have this election cycle. Democratic voters in New Hampshire ignored the state party establishment’s wholehearted embrace of Clinton when they handed her a blowout defeat earlier this month. Political powerbrokers have already failed in their efforts to sway the Republican race, too — most spectacularly in Iowa, when popular governor Terry Branstad was unable to undercut Ted Cruz’s rise to the top.
Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are predominantly white, and the anti-establishment animus driving those voters may not carry over to black Democrats voting in southern states. But Donald Cravins, executive director of the National Urban League’s Washington bureau, says that’s an assumption the Clinton and Sanders campaigns make at their own peril.
“I think endorsements count in the African-American community the same way they count in any other community,” Cravins warns.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.