Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden is interviewed by White House correspondent April Ryan at a Presidential Candidates Forum at the NAACP 110th National Convention Wednesday in Detroit. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Since Joe Biden leads in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, he’s an inevitable target for attacks from his opponents. Right now they’re fighting for the affections of the Democratic Party’s most important constituency, African Americans.

This week saw the conventions of both the NAACP and the National Urban League, which afforded those opponents the opportunity to argue that Biden doesn’t deserve the high levels of support he’s now getting from African Americans. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has been particularly biting in his critique:

Citing Biden’s role crafting a 1994 crime bill, Booker has called him “an architect of mass incarceration” and said that it is time for a new generation to dismantle what Biden created.

“It is easy to call Donald Trump a racist now. You get no badge of courage for that,” Booker said Thursday before a National Urban League meeting in Indianapolis. “The question is, what were you doing to address structural inequality and institutional racism throughout your life? Don’t just tell us what you’re going to do. Tell us what you’ve already done. Don’t just tell us you’re going to be a champion for our communities when you become president, if you haven’t been a champion already.”

For his part, Biden recently put out a much more liberal criminal justice plan, which does indeed focus more on what he wants to do than what he’s already done. But this demonstrates the challenge any candidate faces when trying to win over a constituency of which they aren’t a member. They have to convince people that they’ll not only take the right positions but also make that constituency’s interests a priority so that, ultimately, voters say, “I trust you to be there for me.”

You can do that by showing people what you’ve done before and explaining what you still plan to do, but you also have to make a personal connection that wins people over on a more emotional level, and that’s the tricky part. Yet even African American candidates don’t automatically get the African American vote, as Booker could tell you.

This is an issue in nearly every Democratic presidential primary. In the last election cycle, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) struggled to win over African Americans, and the main reason, as I argued at the time, was that coming from the nearly all-white Vermont, he never had to build a network of relationships he could draw on or an understanding of what black voters expected — so he was starting from scratch in a way Hillary Clinton wasn’t.

But eight years before that, Clinton learned how complicated it can be to hold on to this constituency’s support. When the 2008 campaign began, she had locked down the endorsements of many African American leaders and seemed to benefit from the long relationship she and her husband had built with the community. Meanwhile, many African American voters were skeptical of Barack Obama’s ability to win and withheld their support from him despite the historic nature of his campaign. But when Obama won the Iowa caucuses, demonstrating that he had a genuine shot to be the nominee, they swung in his direction, most dramatically in the key early primary in South Carolina, where he beat Clinton by 29 points.

The point of this story is that nothing is guaranteed, and the situation could be radically different in six months or a year.

But even more important may be the question of which candidate can produce the kind of enthusiasm among African Americans that will be required for the general election. This is a question that every Democratic voter ought to consider.

While we talk a lot about how Donald Trump motivated working-class white people to vote for him, one of the most overlooked stories of the 2016 election was the decline in turnout among African Americans. According to the Census Bureau, 66.6 percent of African Americans voted in 2012, bringing their turnout ahead of white voters for the first time (64.1 percent of whites voted). But in 2016, African American turnout declined to 59.6 percent, while white turnout rose to 65.3 percent. Had black voters turned out in higher numbers, Clinton would be president right now.

Some of that can be attributed to Republican voter suppression, which was particularly effective in keeping black people from the polls in a few key states, including Michigan and Wisconsin. But as political scientist Chryl Laird points out, black turnout fell not only in states where Republicans enacted voter suppression laws but across the country. There was an obvious decline in enthusiasm.

How much of that was about Clinton and how much about Trump is hard to say. But no one doubts any longer that the president is a bigot who sees race-baiting as the key to his reelection. Yet for all the condemnations they’re issuing now, we don’t yet know how Democrats plan to deal with that issue in a general election. Consider this AP article on the questions the party is facing:

“The slice that isn’t being engaged by the Democrats is non-college black men. The people who are talking about this are the RNC,” [Branden] Snyder said, referring to the Republican National Committee. “The RNC and Trump are coming and saying, ‘The reason you’re locked out of the economy, the reason mortality rates are high is not anything to do with structural racism — it’s these immigrants.’”

That gets to the heart of the challenge facing Democrats — whether they should focus on racism and risk alienating some white voters or talk about pocketbook issues that may have a broader appeal even if it speaks less to the concerns of minorities.

Since we’re in the primaries, African Americans are being courted aggressively. But what happens when we get to the general election and all those pundits and consultants start telling the nominee that the most important voters are white guys sitting in diners in the Midwest, and those voters must be pandered to relentlessly? Are Trump’s efforts to use white identity politics going to be met by Democrats with an attempt to reassure whites — or an attempt to activate voters of color?

You may not get a straight answer from the candidates if you ask that question, because they’ll inevitably say “I can appeal to everyone!” But if African American voters get the sense that a candidate is going to court them now and forget them later, that candidate will have a hard time winning the nomination.

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