Bernie Can't Win Virginia: Neither Can Hillary

This election cycle has provided more than its share of political theater; however, after Iowa and New Hampshire there are still some questions we aren't any closer to answering. Can the GOP establishment sabotage Donald Trump without alienating the right-wing of their party? Can Bernie Sanders win electoral support in minority communities? When will Jeb Bush admit defeat and suspend his campaign? Can Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination after three decades of personal and political attacks from conservatives and liberals? But for me, the biggest question is: can Bernie or Hillary keep the Commonwealth of Virginia blue?

In 2008 President Obama won Virginia with 53% of the vote; It was the first time Virginia went blue since President Lyndon Johnson won here in 1964. In 2012 the president defeated Mitt Romney winning just 51% of the vote; Mitt Romney received almost 100,000 more votes than John McCain did four years earlier. In 2008 third party and write-in candidates received 38,000 votes a figure that amounted to roughly 1% of the total vote; by 2012 those fractional factions received 60,000 votes. There's a very real possibility that Democratic turn out will be down this November. If a strong democratic leaning independent or Green Party candidate were to make a serious run, third party and write-in totals could exceed 100,000 votes. Either of these factors alone could hurt the Democrats, but if both happened it would be game over. With that said, is Virginia (with all of our coal mines) the canary in the Democratic coal mine?

I live in a very rural, conservative part of Virginia. President Obama got trounced by large margins in many of the sparsely populated areas similar to where I live. President Obama's victory was a result of dominating high density urban areas like Richmond, Petersburg, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, and Norfolk. I've lived in Richmond and Norfolk. I travel to northern Virginia a few times a year; I would be shocked if northern Virginia and my former neighbors in Richmond and Norfolk came out and supported Bernie or Hillary with the level of enthusiasm they had for president Obama. The 20% African American population of Virginia will decide who gets our 13 electoral votes- whether we want this responsibility or not.

In the last week Hillary and Bernie received strong criticism from powerful figures inside the African American community: Michelle Alexander and Charles Blow. Their critiques were met with opposition inside the campaigns, and vitriol by some of their supporters, but in reality, the two articles were a microcosm of the kinds of (barber shop/ beauty salon) conversations that don't get media attention. Michelle Alexander wrote a thought provoking article that was published in The Root questioning whether or not Hillary Clinton deserves the black vote. Without being nasty she asked a few serious questions about the Clintons: Did they take extreme political risks to defend the rights of African Americans? Did they courageously stand up to right-wing demagoguery about black communities? Did they help usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for neighborhoods devastated by deindustrialization, globalization and the disappearance of work?

Michelle's questions carry weight with people who read and respect her work. Hillary's supporters have to understand that this line of questioning is fair. Hillary's staunchest supporters are similar to President Obama's staunchest supporters in that both groups have a knee-jerk reaction to defend criticism without engaging it. If Hillary is going to excite younger black voters she has to, in an authentic way, engage these types of questions forcefully. Like it or not, the three decades of attacks on her character have caused some people to view her as calculating and manipulative.

Charles Blow published a New York Times Op Ed piece titled Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters in it he writes: Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths — or keyboards — of supposed progressives.

In my opinion, this sentiment is what John Lewis was channeling when he made his statement about never seeing Bernie Sanders in the midst of the civil rights movement- a statement he's since softened. While some of our progressive allies are hoping for a utopian shift in our economic and political system, the black experience is rooted in the reality that change, even small shifts, is the result of fighting for a cause over a protracted period of time. More pre-Civil War abolitionist died trying to get emancipation than ever saw it come to fruition. This doesn't mean progressives should avoid trying large scale projects, but it does mean we have to come to grips with the reality that our role in progress may be to build a solid enough foundation for the next generation to finish the work. In some ways Bernie's rhetoric diminishes the steps President Obama has made. None of the gains made by the left have been the result of immediate actions.

I don’t think either candidate can win Virginia. I hope I’m wrong. If Hillary wants black voters in the 18-35 demographic to vote for her she’s going to have to do more than “whip and Nae Nae” If Bernie wants that demographic to come out for him he’s going to have to measure his tone as it relates to his criticism of president Obama. This slice of the electorate has watched the first black president be viciously disrespected by his political opponents for the last seven years. I don’t think it behooves Bernie to engage in this new progressive pastime of being let down by President Obama. That doesn’t mean he should avoid legitimate criticisms of the president and his policies, but he can’t continue to negate his accomplishments either. Virginia and North Carolina are very similar in some respects. President Obama narrowly won in Virginia in 2012; that same year he lost North Carolina by 2 points. The electoral map could change faster than our suburban and metropolitan progressive allies can order their next Grande Skim Milk No Foam Latte.