Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes photos with people at a campaign event in Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Data analyst and political columnist

Since he formally entered the race, polls have confirmed what many observers long assumed: Joe Biden is the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. CNN, Quinnipiac, the Hill, Harvard/Harris and Morning Consult have all registered strong post-announcement polling bumps for the former vice president, and he leads his closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 39 percent to 15.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national surveys.

One source of Biden’s strength is voters who look like him — older, whiter voters who don’t identify themselves with the far-left wing of the party. But despite the perception that Biden is the candidate who can bring white working-class voters back to the Democratic Party, and the presence of prominent black candidates in the race, he is, at least so far, overwhelmingly the choice of nonwhite voters. Those numbers might seem surprising, but they’re also a reminder not to make easy assumptions about why black voters are such staunch Democrats.

In these recent polls, Quinnipiac said Biden had 42 percent support among nonwhite Democrats. CNN put his nonwhite support at 50 percent. Biden’s closest competitor among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters of all races, Sanders, won 14 percent of the nonwhite vote in the CNN poll and 7 percent in Quinnipiac. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) each earned less than 10 percent of the nonwhite vote in these polls. The Hill/HarrisX and Harvard-Harris both have Biden leading Sanders by over 30 points with African American voters.

Public polls don’t always have a large sample size, so it can be tough to get pinpoint accuracy on the opinions of racial groups. But these numbers suggest Biden has significant backing from some African American voters. And despite Biden’s less-than-progressive record on issues such as busing and crime, the support he is getting from these voters shouldn’t be surprising.

Polling data and past election results suggest that black voters are almost uniformly Democratic — but not uniformly liberal. And black voters have at times happily supported establishment candidates. That makes Biden, an establishment liberal who served as vice president under America’s first black president, but whose policy stances are not notably progressive, a decent match for what these voters are looking for in a candidate.

It’s hard to overstate exactly how crucial Democratic black voters are. According to the Pew Research Center, Hillary Clinton won black voters by 91 percent to 6 percent over Donald Trump in the 2016 election. That’s far greater than the 66 percent of Hispanic voters Clinton won; the 65 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters who went for her; and the 58 percent of voters 18 to 29 who supported her. It’s a much more intense level of support than Trump’s much-vaunted success with non-college-educated white voters, 64 percent of whom voted for him; or even his margin among white evangelical Christians, 77 percent of whom voted for him. That already astronomical margin is even steeper among black women: Clinton earned 98 percent of their votes.

Not all African Americans explicitly identify as Democrats, but overwhelming majorities of black voters regularly cast their ballot for Democratic candidates.

But that doesn’t mean that African American voters are ideologically monolithic: Polls show that black voters disagree on policy internally, and many aren’t progressive on every issue. Fewer than 30 percent of non-Hispanic black Democrats and Democratic leaners described themselves as liberal in 2017, while the majority of non-Hispanic white Democrats did.

Less than 50 percent of black respondents told the General Social Survey that a woman should be able to get an abortion for any reason. Nearly 2 in 10 African Americans strongly disagree that “homosexuals should have the right to marry.” In 2018, 22 percent of black adults said that “if America is too open to people from elsewhere in the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.” Just a little over half of African American voters believe that “having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities in the U.S. makes this country a better place to live.” (Only 11.4 percent say it makes the United States a worse place to live, and the rest say it makes no difference).

There are issues black voters care about that could make Biden a mismatch for them — 77 percent of African Americans believe “discrimination against blacks by police and the criminal justice system” is a problem, and Biden had a hand in crafting that system through the 1994 crime bill. But African Americans aren’t necessarily unified on other issues that have been hailed as the marker of a racially progressive candidate. Fifty-eight percent said the government should make cash payments to the descendants of former slaves, but 17 percent disagreed and 26 percent were unsure.

This is mostly good news for Biden. The prevailing perception on Twitter and other bastions of hyperpolarized political analysis is that Biden is out of step with contemporary Democratic politics and that his performance in the Clarence Thomas hearings and his role in the 1990s crime bill would make him radioactive to black voters. But black voters and Biden may be more aligned than TweetDeck analysts want to believe.

And Biden has an advantage with black voters that no 2020 candidate can match: He was Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years. According to Gallup, Obama maintained an 80 percent to 90 percent approval rating among black voters for almost the entirety of his presidency. Clinton’s close association with Obama — she served as his secretary of state — likely helped her with black voters in 2016. Her popularity with black voters dropped as she fought him for the 2008 nomination but soared when she was in his Cabinet. Biden could leverage his association with Obama in a similar way in 2020, while other candidates, among them South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have to start building a relationship with the national black electorate from the ground up.

This support isn’t necessarily durable. Biden is, after all, the guy who said Obama was “the first mainstream African American who is articulate, bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” while he was running for president in 2007. He’s fully capable of saying stupid things and losing by a wide margin, just as he did in the 1988 and 2008 Democratic primaries. Moreover, with Obama pointedly refusing to endorse in the primaries, Biden is competing with other candidates, including Harris, Booker, Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, who can channel Obama’s style and further his barrier-breaking in ways Biden himself cannot.

But for now, Biden is in the lead. And black voters may keep him there.

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