CHARLESTON, S.C. — Clutching a cup of tea to soothe his hoarsening voice, Senator Bernie Sanders took the stage at the College of Charleston this week with a familiar message for anyone who had been following him since 2015, inveighing against the economic system (“grossly unfair”), political system (“corrupt”) and health care system (“insanity”).
But Mr. Sanders said something needed to be different in 2020 if his promised revolution was going to come to fruition.
“I’m here to ask for your help, to help me win the Democratic primary here in South Carolina,” he said. “With your help, we can do that. We do that, we’re going to win the nomination.”
Many Democrats in the presidential race are banking on strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first nominating contests, to slingshot them into South Carolina with political momentum and then on to Super Tuesday. But Mr. Sanders knows that will not be enough — or at least it was not enough for him in 2016.
That year, he stunned the political world by almost beating Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses. He trounced her in New Hampshire.
Then, in more diverse South Carolina, where black voters make up an estimated 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, he got annihilated anyway. He lost every county in the state, with Mrs. Clinton carrying more than half of them with more than 80 percent of the vote. Only in one did Mr. Sanders even top 40 percent.
South Carolina was the signal defeat in his upstart challenge to Mrs. Clinton, the state where his inability to win support from African-Americans, a crucial Democratic constituency, was laid bare. Mrs. Clinton marched across the South with similarly huge margins, building an unmatchable delegate advantage to clinch the nomination.
“The reason why he got beat here so badly last time is the African-American community didn’t support him, didn’t know who he was, so they went with who they knew,” said Kwadjo Campbell, Mr. Sanders’s South Carolina state director.
As in his race against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders faces in former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. a familiar face with a reservoir of good will among many black voters — a man who served two terms as the No. 2 to the first black president, and who begins far ahead in the South Carolina polls. Only now the race also includes two major black candidates, Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as another senator, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is peeling off support on the ideological left.
Faiz Shakir, Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, called the South Carolina challenge “significant but not insurmountable,” especially if Mr. Sanders performs well in the three preceding states, including Nevada.
“There is a really great possibility for South Carolina — I won’t say win — but I do think cutting margins significantly,” Mr. Shakir said, “particularly in the African-American community, which I think he will do much better with. That’s the path.”
After mostly minimizing South Carolina four years ago, if not seeming to downright disregard it at times, Mr. Sanders has returned with a previously unseen vigor. Once he had declared his candidacy in 2015, Mr. Sanders went more than three months before his first visit to South Carolina (one trip was postponed after the Charleston church shooting). This year, he has already visited seven times as a candidate; by this weekend, when Mr. Sanders visits on a college tour, he will have notched as many visits to the state as he made in the 2016 cycle.
“We’re going to give the vice president a run for his money,” said Nina Turner, one of the Sanders campaign’s national leaders, who is black and who has been instrumental in the South Carolina strategy, visiting the state herself at least twice a month.
Mr. Sanders has unveiled two of his major policy proposals in South Carolina — his criminal justice plan and his “Thurgood Marshall Plan” for public education — as part of an effort to show his commitment to black voters in the state, advisers said. He has six offices here and 52 paid staff members (72 percent are people of color, according to the campaign).
A Sanders spokesman in South Carolina, Michael Wukela, said the Vermont senator now counts 24 endorsements in the state — 20 of them from black supporters — compared with a total of only five at the end of the 2016 race. Members of the clergy are being wooed, as well.
“I know he’s been working hard,” the Rev. Joseph Darby, an influential pastor in Charleston who is close to Mr. Biden, said of Mr. Sanders. “I give him an E for effort.”
An early snapshot of the state suggests that Mr. Sanders still faces an uphill climb. In conversations with black leaders and voters, including some at Mr. Sanders’s own events, there was still uncertainty about Mr. Sanders and his policies. Several people mentioned his “Medicare for All” proposal for a government-run health insurance system.
And in a selfie line after a shrimp-and-grits breakfast event in Georgetown, S.C., last month, nearly all of the people waiting for photographs with the senator were white.
Mae McKnight, 74, who attended that morning event in Georgetown, said she was still deciding which candidate would win her vote. She was leaning toward Mr. Biden to “get the country back to some kind of calm normalcy,” she said. Though she liked Mr. Sanders, she said, “I would not want him to take my insurance plan.”
“I don’t care who gets it as long as I can keep mine,” Ms. McKnight added, noting she was on her teachers’ union’s health plan.
Pamela Venson, a retiree who lives in Florence, showed up at the recent Galivants Ferry candidate stump, which Mr. Sanders ended up missing to rest his voice. Ms. Venson, a Biden supporter, called the former vice president “seasoned,” but saw Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren as “too risky” and “too left.”
“You’ve got to have the money first,” Ms. Venson said of their ambitious policy plans.
Marvin R. Pendarvis, a state representative supporting former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, said that many black voters viewed Mr. Sanders’s expansive agenda warily.
“They like the idea of all that stuff. And it would be great in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world,” Mr. Pendarvis said. “Many black Americans are just reluctant to take the kind of risks like that. We want something a little more concrete.”
National polls show that African-American voters remain Mr. Biden’s most reliable voting bloc, and an area of relative weakness for Mr. Sanders. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week found Mr. Biden with the support of 49 percent of black Democratic primary voters nationwide, while Mr. Sanders had only 5 percent support. (Among all Democratic primary voters surveyed, Mr. Biden led with 31 percent, Ms. Warren had 25 percent and Mr. Sanders had 14 percent.)
The centerpiece of Mr. Sanders’s campaign pitch remains economic and class matters: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, eliminating student debt. References to racial justice remain the rhetorical flourishes of his stump speech.
Advisers to Mr. Sanders have pressed him to speak more about his own civil rights activism as a student in the 1960s, as he did in an early campaign speech in Chicago. Mr. Sanders has mostly ignored them.
“Can I get him to talk about anything in his life? It’s very hard,” Mr. Shakir said.
Alicia Garza, a founder of Black Lives Matter who was in South Carolina this week on a bus tour promoting a new women’s group, Supermajority, noted that Mr. Sanders had been criticized for not sufficiently connecting racial and economic justice.
Fixing the economy would not “change people marching through the streets with tiki torches,” she said, “or not hiring me for a job because of what my name is, or because when the employer looks at me they see a black woman and thinks I’m less qualified or talented.” Of Mr. Sanders, she said, “I’m also willing to give the grace of, ‘You’ve got until February to convince me you finally get it.’”
Mr. Campbell, the Sanders state director, said the senator had “grown in that regard.”
“If you listen to him talk about African-American communities, he doesn’t shy away from the whole idea of racial discrimination,” Mr. Campbell said.
Mariah Moore-McClure, an 18-year-old who moved from Chicago to attend Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, was part of a group the Sanders campaign had bused to the Galivants Ferry event about two hours away. “On my campus, he’s doing great,” she said.
Tensions between the new guard and the originalists of the Sanders campaign have been present throughout this run, including in a recent shake-up of his New Hampshire operation. But Mr. Campbell said the campaign was on sure footing in South Carolina.
“We’ve got a solid state team from the state that knows the state,” he said. “So that’s different from last time.”
Mr. Sanders’s 2016 base — which generally skews younger, whiter and more progressive — remains the core of his 2020 coalition. At Galivants Ferry, the three volunteers at his booth in the early evening were supporters dating to 2016.
“If we have anything to do with it,” said Goffinet McLaren, who is white and a retiree who lives in Pawleys Island, “we would encourage black voters to vote for him this time.”
Shane Goldmacher reported from Charleston, and Sydney Ember from Georgetown, S.C.