So far, the conversation surrounding Biden’s prospective veep pick has been maddeningly myopic. A recent quote in The Post from former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (D) is one example. “Some days I wake up and I say, ‘We’ve got to win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — and Klobuchar is a great candidate.’ Then I think black voters feel strongly that it should be a black woman, so I think Kamala,” Rendell said. He was talking about Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.); both mounted presidential campaigns for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Another example appeared in a recent New York Times story about the “momentous implications” of Biden’s deliberations. “He will weigh the turnout lift he might get from picking a woman of color alongside the potential regional upside from selecting a Midwesterner,” the reporters wrote about the political considerations facing Biden.
News flash: Winning the Midwestern states Hillary Clinton lost and appealing to African American voters are not mutually exclusive.
Put through the political and cultural decoder, “Midwestern,” like “suburban” or “middle class,” is shorthand for “white.” And it’s very shortsighted. Blacks have been in the Midwest in large numbers since the Great Migration. Turning them out in November could be the difference between a new day with Biden or more “American carnage” with President Trump.
Wearing his Scranton, Pa., roots on his sleeve, Biden has long been the avatar of white, working- and middle-class America. That’s why he was deployed often as President Barack Obama’s “unofficial ambassador to the middle class” and “a kind of ambassador to the white working class.” Which is also why a question from one prominent black Democratic strategist I talked to rang true. “Why do you need a white woman like Klobuchar to get the blue-collar [white] vote? That’s why we picked you,” he exclaimed. “If you aren’t white enough to get them, why did we go with you?”
Democrats can’t win Michigan if they don’t turn out Detroit, which is 78.6 percent black. They can’t win Wisconsin if they don’t turn out Milwaukee, which is 38.8 percent black. Democrats can’t win the White House if African American voters, black women especially, don’t show up. Period. And that’s exactly what happened in 2016.
In the 2012 reelection of Obama, the nation’s first African American president, black voter participation exceeded that of whites for the first time in American history. Four years later, “The black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.
If the African American vote is the foundation of the Democratic Party base, then black women constitute its cornerstone. And even their participation declined in 2016. “Black women are one of the most active voting blocs in the U.S. electorate,” noted a November 2019 study from the Center for American Progress. “But in 2016, just 66 percent of eligible Black women cast their ballots on Election Day—down from 74 percent in 2012 and 75 percent in 2008.”
We should have seen the slide in black voter participation coming given the results of the two midterm elections during the Obama presidency. Without Obama’s name on the ballot, the Democratic coalition that put him in office stayed home and watched the Republicans retake the House in 2010 and then the Senate in 2014.
In the 2016 presidential election, Clinton lost Wisconsin to President Trump by 22,748 votes. Black voter turnout in the Badger State plummeted 19 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to a November 2017 report by the Center for American Progress. A Wisconsin State Journal study of the 2016 election put raw numbers behind that statistic.
“Republican Donald Trump received about 2,700 fewer votes than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney,” the newspaper reported in March 2017, “while Democrat Hillary Clinton received almost 239,000 fewer votes than President Barack Obama, with much of the decline coming in Milwaukee.” That’s the largest city in Milwaukee County where Clinton garnered 43,452 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012.
Clinton lost Michigan to Trump by 10,704 votes. The dip in black voter participation in the Great Lake State was 1.2 percent, a blip compared to what happened in Wisconsin. But according to that CAP study, “Our estimates indicate that if black turnout had remained at its 2012 level, Clinton would have carried the state.”
The Detroit Free Press reported days after that 2016 election that “in Detroit, she won roughly 50,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012.” In a March 2019 story on mlive.com about Michigan being a swing state in 2020, Peter Wielhouwer, director of Western Michigan University’s Institute for Government and Politics, said, “If Democrats can get turnout in Detroit to what it normally is, it almost doesn’t matter what Trump does in the rest of the state.”
As for Pennsylvania, Clinton lost the commonwealth to Trump by 44,292 votes. The slip in African American turnout (0.2 percent) would not have impacted the ultimate result. According to that CAP analysis, “Had black turnout remained at its 2012 level, it would have done little to overcome Clinton’s 0.7-point deficit in the state.” Still, Clinton received 17,000 fewer votes in Philadelphia than Obama four years earlier. And the Philadelphia Inquirer story where that factoid came from had an interesting chart that showed “The Democrats winning margin in Philadelphia fell in 2016 for the first time since 1988.”
I know what you’re thinking. My main argument just took a hit in the commonwealth. But it didn’t kill it. A Biden victory this November is going to boil down to enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket and turnout of the Democratic Party base.
Democratic victories since Trump’s inauguration have been powered by black women. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) would not have won their respective elections in 2017 without them. Nor would Democrats have retaken control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 without black women. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in an April 2019 study that while “Fifty-three percent of the citizen voting-age population voted in 2018, the highest midterm turnout in four decades,” voter turnout among non-Hispanic black women was 55 percent. Heck, Biden wouldn’t be the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee were it not for Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and other African American voters, especially black women like my Aunt Gloria.
Now, imagine what could happen if Biden put a black woman on his ticket.
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“A Black woman on the ticket brings three things: a focus on retaining states won in 2016, building on the states lost in 2016 and expanding states in 2020,” longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile told me in an email. Brazile was the acting chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and the manager of then-Vice President Al Gore’s campaign for the White House in 2000, the first black woman to helm a major party presidential campaign.
“Second,” Brazile continued, “it will help rebrand the Democratic Party. Third, Joe Biden will be part of another history making moment in American politics.” When I asked her to elaborate on her contention that a black running mate would help Biden expand the 2020 map, Brazile explained, “Expanding the map to include states like NC, GA, … and other key states with a large and viable Black population.”
Election forecaster Rachel Bitecofer, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington who predicted the Democratic takeover of the House, argues that Biden’s running mate should bring racial, gender and ideological diversity to the ticket. “You cannot have a Democratic ticket in the year 2020 that’s all white. You just can’t do it,” Bitecofer told me during a “Cape Up” podcast interview earlier this year. “This is the most racially rich, ethnically diverse party in the history of the country. It needs to look like that.” Agreed.
The question now is who should Biden’s vice presidential running mate be. I’ll tell you who in the next post.
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