Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and rival Hillary Clinton trek to a meeting with the Reverend Al Sharpton for two reasons. The first is Sharpton himself. President Obama paid absolutely no heed to the by now ritualistic anti-Sharpton name calling by the assorted menagerie of right wing talk show hosts, pundits, and unreconstructed bigots who take giddy delight in spinning the line that he is an ego driven, media hogging race baiting agitator and opportunist who will jump on any cause to get some TV face time. He's their favorite racial punching bag in part because of who many perceive him to be and the influence that he has on the street with many blacks, Latinos, the poor and community activists. This is a constituency that no liberal or moderate Democrat, least of all Sanders and Clinton, can afford to ignore or alienate.
Sharpton's appeal is his media pull and image. The lines between the two are hopelessly blurred. A sound bite, photo-op, rock star and Hollywood celebrity allure can mean as much if not more in determining a candidate's political fate than what they have to say about global warming, the deficit, Syria, the Middle East conflicts, Russia and North Korea, campaign reform, or Wall Street domination, or even health care reform.
The two Democratic presidential contenders by no means are the first politicians in need of a boost to turn to the Rev Al. Black politicians, and various Democratic candidates have leaped over themselves to get mug shots, endorsements, and a spot on the dais at the National Action Network's confabs. At times, even some Republicans have saber rattled fence sitting white voters with the dread of Sharpton.
This is not to say that he is the consummate political king or queen maker. But that doesn't much matter in the glare of the cameras. A beaming President Obama standing before a bank of TV cameras with Sharpton at his side shows for the moment that the man who many love and many more love to hate is in his camp. For Sharpton it showed that he was important enough for Obama to want him in his camp.
The other reason Sanders went to Harlem to meet Sharpton and Clinton met with him too is not brain surgeon stuff. It can be summed up in three words: the black vote. From virtually day one of each candidate's campaign, the black vote has never been far from their calculation. Clinton has a long memory. She knows that South Carolina is as New Hampshire and Iowa an early primary state. Black voters make up the majority of Democratic voters there, and in the 2008 battle with then Democratic rival Obama, her campaign came unglued there.
This time around she's spent countless days courting any and every black Democratic official she can to make sure that doesn't happen again. Sanders after establishing himself as a real contender has moved quickly to try and make up ground with black voters in the state. South Carolina is no anomaly. Blacks make up either the majority or near majority of the Democratic vote in several other Southern states and those states' primaries will follow close on the heels of South Carolina. A big win in these states will do much to seal the nomination for either one.
Beyond the immediate importance of the black vote this election go around, the black vote has been the Democrats' trump card in every election for the past half century, win or lose. Black voters have been so reliable, maybe too reliable, that Democrats have been repeatedly rapped for plantationism; that is for taking the black vote for granted and offering little tangible benefits in return for their unyielding support. If black voters had not turned the Democratic primaries in 2008 into a virtual holy crusade for Obama, and if Obama had not openly in the South Carolina primary and subtly in primaries thereafter stoked the black vote, he would have been just another failed Democratic presidential candidate. The fight for the White House then may well have been between 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Clinton.
This bears heavily on a brutal racial political reality. The emergence of Trump and Cruz as real threats to grab the GOP presidential nomination, their thinly disguised anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-woman pandering, the droves of ultra-conservatives, and evangelicals that buy this line, and their stoking the fury of lower income blue collar white workers disillusioned, disgusted and hostile toward government, have made the black vote loom bigger still in the Democrat's 2016 calculus. There's little margin of error with this vote. Clinton or Sanders needs a reasonable facsimile of the November 2008 black vote outpour to win the White House, save as many Democratic seats as possible, and serve as a partial shield against the extreme peril that a Cruz or Trump triumph would pose to everything from a total right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court to a gut of the Affordable Care Act.
That horrific prospect is more than enough to speed any Democratic presidential candidate to trek to anyone who can help make sure that doesn't happen. In this case, that someone happens again to be Sharpton.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is Trump and the GOP: Race Baiting to the White House (Amazon Kindle) He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network