Sanders' gains with black voters are a big deal heading into the race's next phase

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Image: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders lead supporters to an early voting location after a campaign event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders lead supporters to an early voting location after a campaign event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in Las Vegas.Patrick Semansky / AP

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By Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — If you’d asked us this time last year about what the most obvious tangible challenges for Bernie Sanders would be in the 2020 primary electorate, Exhibit A or B would have been his limited past success with minority voters, specifically African Americans.

A white septuagenarian from one of the whitest states in the country, Sanders struggled in the 2016 primary in states with high black populations, losing every county in South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama, all but one in Georgia, and all but two in Louisiana. In fact, nearly eight-in-ten black primary voters picked Hillary Clinton over him, according to exit polls.

And throughout 2019, Vice President Joe Biden dominated with black voters, comfortably getting as much as half their support nationwide, with no other candidate even in the same ballpark.

But now, that seems to be changing — and it may be the surest sign yet that the train is leaving the station for any of Sanders’ rivals to blunt his momentum heading into Nevada, South Carolina and the diverse Super Tuesday states.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal oversample of black voters finds that Sanders now essentially enjoys the same level of support as Biden among black Democratic primary voters, with each getting the backing of about a third, while no other Democratic candidate comes anywhere close to that.

In fact, the only other candidate demonstrating even a small sign of traction nationally among black primary voters appears to be former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and we’ll note that the poll was in the field before his pummeling over the stop-and-frisk policy on the debate stage Wednesday night.

What’s more, all registered black voters express about the same level of comfort about Sanders as they do about Biden.

A combined 65 percent are either enthusiastic (20 percent) or comfortable (45 percent) with Sanders, while a combined 30 percent express some discomfort. For Biden, it’s a combined 69 percent either enthusiastic (16 percent) or comfortable (53 percent), with 28 percent feeling more negative.

Much of Sanders’ strength here has to do with the same generational differences that we’ve seen among the electorate at large. The lion’s share of Sanders’ support among black primary voters comes from his standing with those under 50, while Biden gets by far the largest share of older African Americans.

By the way, the new numbers from the NBC/WSJ poll dovetail with some other data we saw yesterday: a new Winthrop University poll of South Carolina primary voters that found Sanders cutting Biden’s lead in the state to just five points.

Data Download: The number of the day is… 14 percent

14 percent.

That’s President Trump’s job approval rating with African American registered voters, according to our latest NBC/WSJ oversample of black voters.

Eighty-four percent of them disapprove of the president, with 69 percent saying they disapprove strongly.

There is, however, a significant gender gap. Among black men, 24 percent approve of the president, while among black women, it’s just 6 percent.

Four things we learned from the latest round of FEC reports

Now that we’re well into 2020, the presidential candidates now must file FEC reports monthly — which means we get more frequent peeks at their war chests.

NBC’s Ben Kamisar dug into the latest round of numbers after yesterday’s filing deadline, which covered the month of January. Here are four takeaways.

  1. Bloomberg’s bonanza: The New York billionaire shelled out $220.6 million in January alone. It’s an absolutely staggering figure, considering that the rest of the field — including billionaire Tom Steyer — spent $136.2 million in the same month combined.
  2. Klobuchar, Warren ended January with less than $3 million in the bank: There’s a reason that both candidates have been working hard to tout recent fundraising bumps; they’d both been running VERY low on cash with the pricey Super Tuesday contests looming. Elizabeth Warren had $2.3 million cash on hand; Amy Klobuchar had $2.9 million.
  3. Sanders had a healthy war chest at the end of the month: Sanders ended January with $16.8 million in the bank — significantly more than everyone BUT self-funders Steyer and Bloomberg. Biden ended the month with $7.1 million in the bank, while Pete Buttigieg ended with $6.6 million.
  4. Nearly everyone was going for broke heading into Iowa, but especially Warren and Buttigieg: Again, with the exception of the self-funders, every candidate spent more than they took in during the month of January, a sign of the spending frenzy heading into the Iowa caucuses. But Buttigieg and Warren had the highest burn rates by a significant margin (amount spent divided by amount raised), at 227 percent and 203 percent, respectively.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Warren won’t reject super PAC money

Speaking of campaign cash: One thing that may have been overlooked Wednesday night amid that brawl of a Democratic primary debate: Elizabeth Warren now says that she will NOT reject a super PAC that’s spending on her behalf in Nevada and South Carolina.

That’s a reversal for a candidate who has decried such big-money outside spending, and it’s another sign of how her campaign is taking a more aggressive approach in the effort to stay competitive in the narrowing field.

The group, called Persist PAC, has now placed about $850,000 in TV ads in South Carolina on Warren’s behalf, according to Advertising Analytics. That’s in addition to about $800,000 that the group has placed in Nevada.

Here’s what Warren said yesterday when questioned about her reversal on the issue of allowing a super PAC to boost her campaign, per NBC’s Deepa Shivaram: “[W]e reached the point a few weeks ago where all of the men who were still in this race and on the debate stage all had either super PACs or they were multi-billionaires and could just rummage around their sock drawers and find enough money to be able to fund a campaign. And the only people who didn't have them were the two women. And at that point, there were some women around the country who said, you know that's just not right. So here's where I stand, if all the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in. I'll lead the charge. But that's how it has to be. It can't be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don't.”

On the campaign trail today

Most of the candidates spend at least part of the day in Nevada with one day to go until the caucuses. Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren are in Las Vegas — as is President Trump for a rally. Amy Klobuchar is in Elko and Reno. Bernie Sanders starts the day in California before returning to a rally in Vegas in the evening. And Tulsi Gabbard has a pair of events in Utah.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

Joe Biden, who has been protested throughout the campaign by activists against the deportations done during the Obama administration, said during a CNN town hall that he would halt all deportations in the first 100 days of his tenure, NBC’s Marianna Sotomayor reports. “Nobody is going to be deported in my first 100 days until we get through the part that we find out the only rationale for deportation will be whether or not, whether or not you've committed a felony while in the country,” Biden said.

And Amy Klobuchar retreated to friendlier territory after the heated Democratic debate, NBC’s Amanda Golden reports from Colorado: “Klobuchar started off her remarks by commenting on last night’s Democratic debate, saying, ‘As you know we had a debate last night. And I just thought it would be kind of nice to come to a place where, you know, everyone knows your name. People maybe are nice to you.’ She commented off-hand about the debate a few times during her remarks, saying at one point, ‘there's a lot of great friends of mine up there on the debate stage, you couldn't tell we were friends but yeah you know, we are.’”

The Lid: That escalated quickly

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we reviewed some of the most intense moments from the Democratic debate.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Elizabeth Warren is stepping up her attacks on Bloomberg over NDAs, even writing up a contract for him that would let women out of the agreements.

Trump ousted his acting director of national intelligence after a briefing on Russia’s plan to interfere in the 2020 election, NBC’s Ken Dilanian and Andrea Mitchell report.

Nevada caucus-goers are struggling with what many see as a head-vs-heart decision.

Confused about how the Nevada caucuses work? Here’s your explainer.

The Democratic debate pulled in record viewership.

Trump Agenda: The Stone Zone

What’s next for Roger Stone?

The United States plans to sign a peace deal with the Taliban at the end of the month.

Trump is heading to India next week.

2020: AOC leverages her progressive cred

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plans to back a slate of progressive challengers to Democratic incumbents.

Few big Democratic megadonors are stepping up to stop Sanders.

If Michael Bloomberg was trying to consolidate the anti-Sanders vote, he may have just ended up fracturing it further, NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald writes.

And the Bloomberg campaign is taking some heat for circulating a heavily edited debate video.

The president says he thinks Sanders will be the nominee.

Black and Latino voters are looking for more than platitudes.