HOUSTON — This wasn’t just any campaign stop for Bernie Sanders: The forum was aimed at women of color, and it offered the irascible Vermont senator a chance to connect with many voters who did not warm to his last presidential bid, in 2016.
But when Sanders took the stage at the She the People Presidential Forum last week, he did not exactly win over the crowd.
He barreled through big policy proposals, speaking with his trademark brusqueness amid groans from the audience, while moderators repeatedly urged him to more specifically address women of color in the crowd. Why, they asked, should they support him?
“Look at my record,” Sanders said, wagging his finger for emphasis, “and look what I have campaigned on.”
Afterward, several attendees described Sanders as “agitated,” “frustrated,” and seemingly underprepared.
“He was the same cantankerous person that he always is,” said Marsha Jones, 58, who runs a reproductive health organization in Dallas. “If he could just work on his — if he was a doctor, they’d say his bedside manner — it would probably help him a lot.”
Sanders, 77, has never worried much about “likability,” a vague term that is often lobbed at female candidates, to question whether their personality and demeanor can win over voters. In fact, to many voters, his gruff manner is evidence of his authenticity and deep commitment to his convictions.
“In some ways he’s always taken ownership of that and has made it his effective way of communicating how disgruntled he is,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
But with a record number of women running for the Democratic presidential nomination, some in the party believe Sanders has not been subjected to the same personality-based critiques as female candidates such as Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Elizabeth Warren, whose current campaign at one point distributed a point-by-point memo explaining how she could win, insisting she could connect with voters on a personal level.
“He should be held to the same standards that we are,” said Quiana Dickenson, political director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
For now, Sanders, who is an independent, remains near the top of the polls in a crowded Democratic primary, and he has out-raised his rivals in the first quarter of the year. But his 2016 campaign showed Sanders failed to win over many black voters, particularly women. And since they are expected to provide key support to whomever Democrats nominate, the complaints about Sanders’s ability to connect with women of color at the forum in Houston could be an ominous sign that he, too, may have a “likability” problem, at least among some voters.
“I think he has got his positions and his policy and he thinks that’s enough, and it baffles me,” said LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter who watched the forum in Houston. “With women of color, we’re screaming it — we need to know people will be able to listen to us.”
She added: “He does not show up in a way that is welcoming to people that are not already in his base.”
A single event in front of a less-than-supportive crowd is hardly indicative, of course, of the dynamics of an entire campaign; later that day, for example, Sanders was greeted by a diverse crowd who found much to like at a rally in downtown Houston. His campaign said Sanders is working to win over a broad coalition of voters.
“We welcome that constructive feedback, and we will work on hearing it and being clearer in a platform that speaks to these concerns,” said Ro Khanna, a California congressman who cochairs Sanders’s campaign. “I think it’s a matter of making sure his platform is inclusive and broad and resonating with the right messages.”
Khanna said Sanders has addressed numerous issues of concern to voters of color, such as the wealth gap, criminal justice, and police violence, and at the forum Sanders said he had dedicated his life to fighting racism and sexism.
On Friday, his Senate office also tweeted that Sanders had signed onto a bill by Senator Kamala Harris, one of his Democratic presidential rivals, to reduce racial disparities in maternal care, an issue that came up at the forum in Houston.
Sanders has taken other steps to widen his appeal, including becoming the first candidate to back a pledge promoted by Indivisible, a progressive group, to rally behind the party’s nominee. That could quell worries about Sanders’s commitment to the Democratic Party and salve the lingering discontent over his drawn-out battle with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary election — which some allies believe fuels the dislike of Sanders more than any aspect of his personality.
But Sanders has long preferred policy to personality, and he has chafed at advisers’ efforts to make him more relatable. His favored campaign event is the big rally, anchored by long speeches on economic justice before large, supportive crowds. He holds fewer small events than other candidates, where he might exchange small talk with voters.
Recent polling suggests that while he remains a strong candidate, his favorability rating among all voters has fallen since his juggernaut campaign in 2016, according to CNN. Among Democrats, he ranks in the middle of the pack on favorability measures, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, which follows political polling; it pointed out that Sanders has relatively high unfavorability ratings in the early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, said Sanders will need new voters to like him; even if his base is enough to win him the nomination, he will need voter enthusiasm to compete in the general election. But if his performance in Houston last week is any indication, some voters are simply turned off by the way he delivers his message.
“It was, ‘Thank you for all that you’ve done, but we see some other candidates that have the charisma,’ ” said Jaclyn Boyes, an activist with Indivisible who attended the Houston forum.
Sanders was one of eight candidates to speak. Many women interviewed after the forum said they thought Warren and Harris made a stronger connection to the crowd; some praised Beto O’Rourke, the only other white male candidate to speak, for giving them the impression he was there to learn from them.
Part of Sanders’s problem could be trust. Seven minutes into his talk, the Houston audience scoffed at his promise to support the Democratic nominee if he doesn’t win.
“He didn’t last time,” muttered Bridgett Mitchell, 59, a human resources manager. (Sanders waited weeks after Clinton effectively clinched the nomination before endorsing her and campaigning for her.)
Sanders spoke at length about key themes such as free public college, universal health care, and raising the minimum wage that have won him a devoted base of supporters and that Sanders says will help all voters. But many in the audience called for him to address issues specifically of interest to women of color.
He broadly denounced racial and gender discrimination but responded sharply when the moderators, Joy Reid and Aimee Allison, pressed him to explain why black women, specifically, should support him. “Black women will be an integral part of what our campaign and what our administration is about, OK?” Sanders said, to skeptical cries from the crowd.
And while advisers have urged Sanders to draw on his personal history to connect better with voters, his mention of being in the 1963 civil rights March on Washington as evidence of his commitment to fighting white supremacy elicited only groans.
“I felt like he was frustrated,” said Deirdra Reed, 40, an education policy organizer who traveled to the Houston forum from Tennessee. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to rest on your history. I want to know how we’re moving forward as a country.’ ”
Later Wednesday, Sanders found a much friendlier audience of about 1,000 at the downtown Houston rally. He had no problem engaging, leading call-and-response chants with the crowd about their student debt payments and Amazon’s tax payments.
Likable? Here, he seemed loved.
“ He jumps straight to it so that way we can understand,’’ said Katrina Acevedo, an educator in her 30s, praising Sanders’s ability to connect with voters “who see it the way he sees it.”