Is Joe Biden the "Blackest" Candidate in the Democratic Primary?

Questions surrounding dominance (or not) of 2020 candidates must deal, first, with the Black vote

Publisher’s Riff

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by Charles Ellison | #RealityCheck WURD | @ellisonreport

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Black vote while unpacking the very packed 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, you’ll pay closer attention to it now that Joe Biden has entered the race.

Dominant Great Progressive White Savior themes have permeated mainstream discussions on the Democratic primary before the entrance of Biden this week.  Not that Biden himself won’t be viewed as Greying White Savior meme, the resurrected Obi Wan Kenobi emerging from his Tatooine cave to save the Rebel Alliance from itself and the Trumpian Death Star ominously rotating around the planet’s orbit.  But the months-long focus on the draws of Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke – in such a way as if neither the highly qualified women, particularly the decently fundraising Black woman, or the equally highly qualified Latino with loads of executive management experience exist – speaks not just to a White-male dominated tendency to dismiss anyone that doesn’t look like them, but a much more troubling public attempt to strip away electoral clout from other-than-White voters … especially Black voters.

It’s not just fascination. Dialogue on Sanders’ Pentecostal-like tent revival or Buttigieg’s rising Modern Family appeal with overwhelmingly White heartland crowds is not just obsession with either White dude’s magnetic political biographies.  And the sour, open disappointment from the political media class over the demise of Beto O’Rourke, who seemed to expand like a price-inflated IPO and now pops like a bubble as senior campaign hacks jump ship, isn’t solely based on reasoning that he’d really be the one to beat Donald Trump when he couldn’t even beat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in one state with $80 million.

What’s really happening is a systematic passive-aggressive bid to relegate Black Democratic primary power to a mere footnote.  We saw this prior to Biden’s entrance in the case of Kamala Harris: not only had she managed to maintain 2nd to 3rd place positioning in Biden-less polling for months, but she actually displayed more fundraising prowess than everyone else in the field.  While commentators were fan-boy ogling at Buttigieg’s first quarter $7 million and Sanders’ $18.2 million, Harris’ $12 million first-time presidential haul as a Black woman was met with predictable indifference – even when considering Sanders quietly gave himself a legal, yet shady undisclosed bump by transferring $14 million from his previous 2016 primary and Senate campaign accounts (bet you didn’t know about that).   

Quirkily, but racially tawdry enough, the influence and oversized presence of the Black vote – somewhat blurry up until now – may start to come into fuller focus as Biden appears.  It’s been there, of course, popping up fiercely in social media, at town halls and in candidate conversations on reparations, criminal justice, inequality, weed and HBCUs.  But it’s been presented or framed as the occasional swarm of gnats in the room, an irritating collection of loud voices making unrealistic and outlandish demands that offend the sensibilities of White people. Some candidates have responded more assertively than others with ambitious “Black Agenda” policy pronouncements, but there’s a strange and forced gun-to-the-head quality about it.  Media snapshots zoom in quickly, but there’s no fleshed out macro-treatment of the real significance of the Black vote as is offered to White “working-class” or Midwest-Rust Belt voters. 

With conventional wisdom presently unsure how Biden pulls off a nomination after three previous tries (1984, 1988 and 2008), most discussion will focus on factors such as age, his awkward mea culpas to Anita Hill, his support of unpopular wars, and how he might white-splain authoring the infamous 1994 crime bill.  The real key for Biden success are the Black voter numbers.

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Morning Consult’s Democratic primary tracking finds him among all Democratic voters at 30 percent (6 ahead of Sanders) and RealClearPolitics shows him at an average 29.3 percent (6 ahead of Sanders).  But the most important number, for this primary, is where he stands with Black voters. The weekly Economist/YouGov poll shows Biden a clear frontrunner among Black voters at 57 percent, with Sanders 17 percentage points behind and Harris in third place with 29 percent, while Warren and Cory Booker tie for fourth at 25 percent.  In terms of individual favorability, Sanders closes the gap with 54 percent combined favorable, but Biden still leads with 56 percent – Harris and Warren do better, each with 46 percent, but far behind, and Booker at 40 percent. 

But, that’s against Buttigieg’s 24 percent (since we keep bringing him up) and Beto’s 31 percent.  In earlier March YouGov polls, Biden actually does better at nearly 70 percent among Black voters than either Harris (57 percent) or Stacey Abrams (53 percent).

Only in a recent Monmouth University poll do we see Sanders doing better among Black voters than Biden, 65 percent to 61 percent (once extrapolating the Black vote from the “non-White” cluster Monmouth samples). Favorability ratings in constant Reuters/Ipsos polling, however, show Biden with a fairly solid 82.5 percent favorability rating with Black voters, compared to 80.2 percent with Sanders.  What keeps that overall Black voter gap narrow between the two is a mix of basic name ID and, more troubling for Biden, questions over the prominent tough-on-crime role he played in the drug wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This same issue hampered Hillary Clinton in 2016, and she never adequately responded to it. Biden will need to. 

But where Biden really outperforms Sanders is with the secret weapons of Black voter performance: Black women and seniors 50 and above.  These are the extremely reliable “super voters” of the Black electorate and the most reliable primary and general election voters Democrats have. With Reuters/Ipsos segmenting, we see Biden strong among Black women voters at 83 percent and those 50+ at 88 percent. Sanders is far behind at 73 percent and just under 74 percent with those same groups, respectively.

No one can win the Democratic nomination without the Black vote – a lesson from 2016 Sanders has not yet learned based on his clumsy campaign-trail responses to thorny Black agenda topics.  And the defection of one of his top Black strategists from 2016, Symone Sanders, to the Biden 2020 camp is a very telling sign.  Ultimately, Black voters are nearly a solid quarter of the entire Democratic Party electorate, and while candidates like Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg will more than likely split up the 62 percent of Democratic primary voters who are White (down from 65 percent in 2016), Biden’s Obama-era familiarity with Black voters will (theoretically) offers him a bigger edge.  Three out of five of the crucial first 2020 Democratic primary/caucus states are places where the Black share of the primary electorate is 13 percent or more, with New York (22 percent), Nevada (13 percent) and South Carolina (61 percent).  Half of the “Super Tuesday” states are places where statewide Black populations exceed 13 percent, with Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia each exceeding 20 percent.  If it becomes a lengthy contest with Sanders into April, Biden still has Black voter advantages in places like Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  With Black voters loyally 95 percent plus points behind Democrats, Biden – who will, naturally, channel President Obama – may be as close to the Blackest candidate Democrats could nominate. As for the general election, voter suppression and lower Black voter turnout in 2016 already complicates the 2020 picture.