The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How long can Biden’s safety net hold?

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks in Spencer, Iowa, Sunday during a stop on his “No Malarkey!” campaign bus tour. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Most African American voters do not share the mostly white, mainstream media’s disdain for former vice president Joe Biden. Reporters generally think Biden has lost a step, resembles a gaffe machine and does not relate to today’s Democratic Party. African American voters so far see no one who compares with former president Barack Obama’s loyal vice president, a familiar figure whose gaffes and stumbles are irrelevant as far as they are concerned.

World-weary African American voters are not terribly impressed by other candidates’ elaborate schemes to remake America. They’ve heard the over-the-top pandering before and gritted their teeth as politicians who had never shown up presume to tell them what is wrong in their communities. Biden does not have to stress and strain, nor present glitzy proposals to convince them of his sincerity; his heart is in the right place, and that is enough for many older African American votes.

For Biden, the overwhelming support of these voters is his best and only shot at the nomination. The New York Times reports that “an overwhelming majority of delegates are awarded from areas more racially diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire. If Mr. Biden retains his strength with black voters, he’d have a structural advantage in the nomination race that is greater than his uneven lead in national polls suggests.” If you look simply at the delegate count, “While Iowa and New Hampshire may generate political momentum for a winner because they vote first, the two states award very few delegates. By contrast, a candidate who is popular in California, Texas and predominantly black districts in the South could pick up big shares of delegates.” Victories in later states with more delegates and more African American voters are Biden’s best hope of winning what may be a long, closely contested race.

Biden’s biggest fear is that poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire will unravel his campaign, causing African American and other voters to look for a winning candidate. Biden is fortunate in that there is no single, obvious candidate to which African American voters are likely to migrate.

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It is not for lack of trying. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is pulling out all the stops, first with a TV ad focused on South Carolina, smartly referencing his faith:

He was also in South Carolina seeking to prove his sincerity with African American voters. The Post reports on his visit to the Greenleaf Christian Church, pastored by the Rev. William J. Barber II:

Buttigieg’s decision to worship with the Disciples of Christ congregation underscored the task that awaits him as he seeks to convince voters that he can credibly lead a diverse coalition to capture the White House.
“I believe that I am here to make myself useful — that I am part of this political process to make myself useful, but also that I was put on this Earth in order to make myself useful to others,” Buttigieg told more than 100 members of the mixed-race congregation who stayed following the Sunday service to witness the candidate field questions for two hours from Barber, along with other faith leaders, activists and voters. “These are the values that I was taught by my parents. These are the values that I’m taught by my faith.”

Buttigieg is trying hard to make up for lacking the kind of decades-old relationship with the African American community that Biden enjoys. “Buttigieg also sat for a lesson of sorts, as Barber displayed slides showing maps aimed to illustrate the overlapping effects of voter suppression, poverty and other scourges. . . . Barber is pressing for a presidential debate on poverty and racism.” Unsurprisingly, “Buttigieg called that debate ‘imperative’ as he issued a ‘moral call to unity’ designed to ‘confront all of the interwoven and interlocking sources of systematic poverty and systematic racism.’”

One almost feels sorry for Buttigieg as he racks his brain trying to show his good intentions as Biden stumbles through debate after debate — his African American supporters shrugging off every misstep, even ones that smack of racial paternalism.

No one knows how enduring Biden’s support will be nor how impactful Buttigieg wins in early states might be. However, Biden might be smart to look for some insurance in Nevada. That’s not a lily-white state, although not as heavily African American as South Carolina, which comes a week later.

In 2016 African American and Hispanic voters made up a third of the Democratic electorate. Hillary Clinton’s modest victory against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who won the Hispanic vote, was due largely to her overwhelming victory with African American votes. If Biden wants a firewall after Iowa and New Hampshire, a quick way to dislodge candidates whose support is less diverse, he would be wise to spend plenty of time in Nevada. It’s not clear if “as goes Nevada, so goes South Carolina,” but a win there would sure help fend off competition from Buttigieg and other candidates who ran strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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