Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) stand on stage during the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit on July 31. (Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

Every second Saturday in August, my mother and her siblings host a family barbecue, a simple gathering under the enormous pecan tree in the side yard of the house where they grew up in Severn, N.C. In the mix are great-aunts and great-uncles, along with two or three generations of cousins and folks who have been friends of the family forever. All are African Americans from the Tar Heel State and Virginia, along with a few transplants and relatives who live in New York state. In short, a great focus group for the 2020 Democratic presidential contest.

This was kind of an in-person reprise of that totally unscientific and impromptu Twitter poll I conducted back in May. Back then, Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were the top choices of my followers, with Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) of South Bend, Ind., and former vice president Joe Biden coming in next. That foursome is still top of mind now. But Biden’s hold on African American support was confirmed. I saw potential for Buttigieg to boost his support among black voters. The enthusiasm for Warren was palpable. And there was respect for Harris, but there was also concern about her potential.

A family friend started off my entire informal poll when he came to me and said he liked Warren. He liked her directness and toughness. Another relative and another family friend said the same thing. The enthusiasm of their support for her was what really stood out. They were real-life examples of what I had been reading a lot about lately: Warren is eliciting excitement among black voters because she talks to them not as voters to whom she must pander but as voters worth pursuing.

I couldn’t help but be surprised by how many times Buttigieg was mentioned. Many of them couldn’t say his name. One said, “This other little fella. I think he’s a governor.” Her face lit up when I showed her a picture of him, “That’s him!” We’re talking African Americans who are in their 60s, 70s and older who mentioned him favorably. “I like him because he was straightforward,” one relative said. When I asked her what the mayor was straightforward about, she talked about how he handled questions at the June debate where he was asked about the police-involved shooting in South Bend earlier that month. “He didn’t tell lies. He didn’t embellish stuff.”

Another relative echoed that sentiment later, describing Buttigieg as a “young” and “intelligent” man who “stands strong” and is “not apologetic” — an implicit reference to Buttigieg being openly gay. More than one person said his being out meant that no one “could hold it over him” as a way to embarrass or hurt his candidacy.

As I learned over Easter brunch, my own mother likes Buttigieg. But her heart (right now, anyway) is where the hearts of the overwhelming majority of the people I talked to are — with Biden. Twenty of the 26 people said Biden was their first choice. The No. 1 reason mentioned is Biden’s experience. “He’s a former vice president,” said one. “He’s been in there before,” said another. And another said, “He is a good man.” Not one person mentioned former president Barack Obama, the man who made Biden his vice president. The message here is that you are mistaken if you think African American affection for Obama is the wind beneath Biden’s wings. Nope. They like Biden.

But there is also something else at work here, and it’s a danger to all the African Americans, young people and women in the race, particularly Harris.


My family's annual barbecue in Severn, N.C., on Aug. 10. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

One aunt said something my mother said to me nearly a year ago. That it’s going to take a white man to straighten out the mess we’re in. “The way the system is set up now, there is so much racism that it’s going to have to be an old white person to go after an old white person,” my aunt told me. “Old-school against old-school.” She talked further about what this meant for younger candidates such as Buttigieg. “The whole world is in a crazy state, and somebody’s gotta put it back in order. And I think a lot of the young people who want to put it back in order, want to change it completely,” she continued. “But first, you’ve got to put it back in order before you can start changing it.”

Now get this. Before saying all that about Biden, guess who my aunt’s favorite candidate is in the Democratic field? Harris. Yet, my aunt, like everyone else at the barbecue, thought that Biden was the one who could beat President Trump. She thought this not only because the former California attorney general and former San Francisco district attorney is not “an old white person,” but also because Harris is a woman. “Nobody is going to vote for a woman,” said another female relative. “They didn’t vote for Hillary [Clinton]. ... Hillary didn’t win. If she were a man, she would have won.”

Another relative put it this way. “I’m not concerned about color. I’m not worried about [the nominee being] a woman,” she said. “My concern is for the country.” She and others want a fighter, someone to take on Trump, who they all think is ruining the nation. But a caution for Harris and the other Democrats is that these folks do not like the candidates taking on each other. More than a few complained that Harris “gave Biden a hard time” over his stance on busing and working with segregationist senators during the early part of his political career. One even said, “Nothing personal, but Harris? No. She and de Blasio going after Biden is not helpful.” That’s New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who criticized Biden on criminal justice and immigration. The only other time his name came up was when my uncle who used to live in the Big Apple mentioned de Blasio as his second choice.

Therein lies the good news for Harris. While “no second choice” got the most votes when I asked for a Plan B, Harris was the person who was most mentioned as a second choice for Democratic nominee. Others mentioned were Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Biden, Warren and Buttigieg. In fact, one of my older female relatives said of Buttigieg, “He may become my first choice” if her first choice of Biden doesn’t go all the way.


South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) shake hands before a debate in Detroit on July 30. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

As for dream tickets, the most mentioned was a Biden-Harris ticket. One said Biden-Warren. One male relative said Biden-Sanders, which got a major say-what-now side-eye from me. The family friend who loves Warren would like for her to pick Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), whom he also likes a lot.

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think through what they told me over the weekend, here are some other takeaways. Biden, Buttigieg, Harris and Warren have my relatives’ attention. And I came away with the distinct impression that where Harris is with these black voters is where Obama was with African American voters about this time in 2007. Back then, black voters for the most part were with Clinton. That is, until Obama won the predominantly white state of Iowa during the caucuses in 2008. It was the thunderclap moment when black voters saw that Obama could win. Seemingly overnight, they rushed to his side. Harris needs a similar thunderclap moment. She just needs to clear two high, but not insurmountable, hurdles. There’s the “a woman can’t win” refrain I heard throughout the afternoon. And then there’s the worry that after eight years of Obama, it’s still too soon to have another black person sitting in the Oval Office.

The final takeaway from the weekend: My 26 relatives want to win. While they love Biden (or whoever their first choice is), they will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee next November, thus making them part of the growing “vote blue no matter who” chorus among the Democratic Party faithful. As I’ve argued since last December and will keep saying until Election Day 2020: Who cares if the eventual nominee only meets 80 percent — heck, 50.1 percent — of your checklist? Evicting Trump should be the most important item on that checklist.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast.

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