Charlane Oliver, co-founder of Equity Alliance, in Nashville. Equity Alliance is a partner in the Tennessee Black Voter Project and has helped register about 90,000 Tennessee voters. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Since the inauguration of President Trump and the ongoing offense to American values that is his administration, Democrats have found hope in elections around the country that snatched seats from Republicans or held them for incumbent Democrats in once-GOP strongholds. I’m thinking of the 2017 victories of Sen. Doug Jones (D) in Alabama that December 2017 in the former and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in Virginia that November in the latter. And let’s not forget the 2018 midterm-election tsunami that put the House of Representatives back in Democratic control.

The secret weapon: African American women.

Overall, Northam got 87 percent of the black vote in Virginia. But he wouldn’t be governor if he had not won the vote of 91 percent of black women in the commonwealth. Jones got 96 percent of the black vote in Alabama. But he wouldn’t be a senator if he had not won the vote of 98 percent of black women in that state. Democratic candidates across the country in the 2018 midterms snagged 90 percent of the black vote. But without the help of 92 percent of black women, Democrats would have had a hard time winning back the House.

These results did more than confirm that African Americans are the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party. They finally cemented African Americans as its foundation and black women as its cornerstone. That’s why we, those of us in the media and especially the presidential campaigns, should be paying attention to the fifth annual “Power of the Sister Vote” survey of African American women published by Essence magazine in conjunction with the Black Women’s Roundtable.


(Courtesy 2019 BWR/Essence Survey)

Some of the results won’t surprise you. Black women overall have high confidence in the Democratic Party (73 percent). Eighty-three percent give Trump a failing grade with another 9 percent giving him a “D.” And the top issue for black women is criminal justice and policing reform (48 percent) followed by affordable health care (47 percent).

Their top concerns changed when they were asked about threats to them or their families. In that case “racism/rise in hate crimes” (52 percent), “high cost of housing” (46 percent) and “gun violence” (36 percent). That No. 1 concern is also the number one thing black women believe is threatening our democracy (85 percent). It’s followed by “voting rights/voter suppression tactics” (68 percent) and “rollback of civil rights protections” (59 percent).

Okay, now, here’s where it gets interesting — and alarming — for those of you who think you know what black women think or want.

Even though their confidence in the Democratic Party is high, the 73 percent in the 2019 results is a comedown from 85 percent in 2016 and 74 percent in 2017. But here come the warning bells. First, 23.6 percent of the black women surveyed “identified as Independents or non-affiliated.” More alarming data comes from black women ages 25 to 35. The survey notes that “only 45% agreed that the Democrats best represented their interest[s], with nearly ⅓ indicating that no party represents them.” What this tells me is that the Democratic National Committee better spend more time trying to court these voters than the electoral unicorn that white working-class voters have become for the party.

Reinforcing this point is another curious red light that involves Trump. One percent of the 1,068 African American women surveyed said they would vote for the president if the election were held today. But Trump’s support jumps to 2.3 percent among black women ages 18 to 34. That a president so at odds with the interests of African Americans could get any support from this cohort of black women should set Democrats’ hair on fire and focus their minds on trying to win them back.


(Courtesy 2019 BWR/Essence Survey)

Former vice president Joe Biden would get the vote of 25 percent of the black women surveyed, the most of the 16 candidates listed. Among the 18-to-34 cohort, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) earned the most (18.9 percent) among the candidates. The peril and opportunity for the entire field lie in the fact that “other/prefer not to answer” was the most cited overall (26 percent) and among younger black women (26.9 percent). That means they are still candidate-shopping. That means there is room to grow, especially for the top-tier candidates. And the one person who stands to benefit from this is Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).

Most surveys, including the most recent Post-ABC News poll, show that the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is a three-person race between Biden, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But the Essence-Black Women’s Roundtable survey shows it to be a four-person contest with Harris firmly in the mix. She comes in behind Biden overall at 15 percent and behind Sanders with 17.1 percent among younger black women voters.

Notice how Harris, the only black woman in the contest, gets more support the 18-to-34-year-olds than she does with the entire group of black women. With “criminal justice and policing reform” the top issue for these young women, the criminal justice plan Harris released Monday will be of great interest. Despite the polls, I’ve long believed Harris was stronger than it appears on the surface. This survey gives credence to my position.

It has been said many times already during this campaign that the road to the Democratic presidential nomination is paved with the African American vote and that of black women in particular. Their concerns align with the values of the Democratic Party, and they overwhelmingly can’t stand Trump. But they are increasingly less confident that the party represents their issues, and a surprising few would vote to reelect the president today if they could.

What do black women want? To be taken seriously as a proven electoral force that must be wooed — if you want to win.

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

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