COLUMBIA, South Carolina — On the campus of Allen University, a small HBCU downtown here, Bernie Sanders gave a crowd at a criminal justice advocacy summit a lesson in the obvious: It’s not going well for him in the fourth state on the Democratic primary calendar.
But, Sanders said, there’s still time.
“We are going to do well in South Carolina, but we’re not doing well right now,” Sanders said. “I’m the first to admit it.”
Sanders’s view of the state of the race overall was a significantly rosier picture.
“Based on the last poll we saw in New Hampshire, we are ahead by a little bit,” Sanders said at Allen University. “We are probably behind by Iowa today, but not by much. And we’re going to do well in Nevada.”
South Carolina remains Sanders’s biggest challenge.
Polling averages show Sanders down nearly 53 points to Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, a huge gap that has widened in recent weeks. The Sanders team has said from the beginning that he has an uphill climb with minority voters — the black electorate is seen as the key to the Palmetto — and in a pre-Thanksgiving swing through the south this weekend, Sanders tried to boost his appeal with speeches focused on criminal justice and voting rights.
As he has throughout his campaign, he chalked up his lack of support among black voters to a low name ID.
“My guess is probably 80 to 90% of the people in South Carolina did not know who the junior senator from Vermont was,” Sanders said at Allen University. “Is that a fair statement? So we started nationally at 3%. We’re running against one of the best-known, in the world, one of the best-known.”
National polls don’t look great for Sanders either. The Real Clear Politics average, which aggregates public polls, shows Sanders running more than 20 points behind Clinton, a gap that has remained fairly steady since the start of debate season. That number doesn’t mean a lot — given that Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are the ones that really count — but Sanders said there was a message in them for people worried about his candidacy.
“I think the first poll had me at 3% nationally,” Sanders told reporters in Columbia. “We’ve come a long way.”
Sanders is working hard to win the black vote, spending big money in South Carolina on a sophisticated operation that includes paid canvassers and a new radio spot that his campaign told reporters “highlight[s] his participation in the March on Washington with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and repeated calls to end racial profiling and mass incarceration.”
The ad is narrated by the actor Reg E. Cathey, who currently plays Freddie Hayes, the barbecue joint owner in the Netflix show House Of Cards. Cathey accompanied Sanders on his South Carolina swing Saturday.
On Monday, Sanders will hold one of his trademark large rallies in Atlanta. Standing with him will be the rapper Killer Mike, who endorsed Sanders in July after Sanders promised to fight voter ID laws. At Allen University, a small Columbia HBCU, Sanders told a young black woman that forcing changes in tactics on police departments aimed at reducing the use of force would be a “a major priority of a Sanders administration.”
But Sanders has been actively trying to build support in the black community since the start of his campaign, when he was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots in June. A recent poll of South Carolina showed Sanders still has a wide gap with Clinton among black voters.
Sanders went so far as to say he could win South Carolina, though he said the victory would come as a surprise to many.
"I think we're going to shock some people on Election Day, because I think we're going to win here," Sanders told a crowd in Columbia moments after officially filing the paperwork to be a candidate on the Democratic primary ballot.
He was more even more direct about his current chances at his first stop of the day, a Democratic party rally in Charleston.
“If the election were held today, I would lose,” Sanders said. “Fortunately for us, the election is not being held today.”