Joe Biden has a past that threatens his prospects with black voters — from his long-ago stance against busing to his mismanagement of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas to his onetime support of the 1994 crime bill. Now he’s running for president in a crowded 2020 Democratic field that includes three black candidates, all of whom will need strong African American support to secure the party nomination.
So far, though, polling shows Biden with a dominant share of black Democrats’ support. An average of two Quinnipiac polls of Democratic-leaning voters, one taken right after Biden declared his candidacy and another released in late May, found him well ahead of the other candidates, with 46 percent among African Americans nationally. Compare that with an average of 10 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 7 percent for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and 11 percent for the three black candidates combined.
Biden certainly owes some of this early success to his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president. But a fuller explanation has to do with the politics of pragmatism. When it comes to presidential races, black voters, perhaps more than any other demographic, vote not for what might be gained but according to what might be lost.
Voters are generally risk-averse, preferring candidates they know over those who may be more exciting but unfamiliar. This holds particularly true for black voters: A study published last year in Public Opinion Quarterly noted that black voters are especially inclined to choose established candidates and efficiently assess contenders based on their perceived ability to preserve hard-won civil rights and racial equality gains.
This approach isn’t new, but President Trump has intensified it. His disapproval rating among African Americans was 84 percent in a late-April YouGov poll, compared with only 9 percent approval. In a CNN/SSRS poll taken around the same time that grouped together all voters of color, 96 percent of nonwhite Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters reported that defeating Trump was extremely or very important to them in determining whom to support in the primary race; in a contemporaneous Quinnipiac poll, 61 percent of nonwhite Democrats said they believed that Biden had the best chance of doing so. Next best was Sanders, at 10 percent. If you were to go by Twitter or cable news coverage, you might conclude that minority communities are consumed by “identity politics.” But voters of color, including black voters, are squarely focused on getting Trump out of office. Biden, for now, is the beneficiary.
This is unwelcome news for the rest of the primary field, especially Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), who should otherwise have an inside track with black voters. In a 2006 paper, Yale University economist Ebonya Washington found that “Black voter turnout increases by 2.3 percentage points for every Black Democrat on the ballot.” In a 2007 paper in the American Journal of Political Science, Tasha S. Philpot and Hanes Walton Jr. demonstrated that no bloc supports black female candidates like black female voters. And my own research has found that a candidate’s race is especially meaningful to black men’s vote choice. Political scientists have long known that black voters share a sense of “linked fate,” a term used by University of Chicago political scientist Michael C. Dawson to describe “the degree to which African Americans believe that their own self-interests are linked to the interests of the race.”
But when it comes to 2020, the politics of pragmatism make this descriptive representation less important to black voters than voting out the president. One African American voter told the New York Times, “Ms. Harris seems like a decent person, but I just don’t think she’d have a chance” as a black female candidate, “and I don’t want to throw away my vote.” Rosemary Lawrence, a 75-year-old black woman in Charlotte, told The Washington Post she was impressed by Warren’s policy agenda and admired Harris and Booker, but she thought Biden was best positioned to beat Trump. That sentiment isn’t merely a desire to vote for a winner. (And clearly, it’s not just black Democrats who see Biden as a good bet to unseat Trump.) It’s the idea that too much is at stake in 2020 to indulge personal preference.
We’ve seen these politics before. Black Virginians favored keeping Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in office following his blackface controversy, rather than risking the possibility that the Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates would assume the office in his place. And at the end of 2007, Hillary Clinton had far more support among black primary voters than Obama did. Among black women, CBS News reported at the time, she held a 15-point lead, something Democratic strategist Donna Brazile attributed to familiarity and Clinton’s perceived chance of victory. “Most black women simply believe Clinton can win,” she said. The next year, after Obama won the Iowa caucuses and tied for New Hampshire delegates, the sense that his candidacy wasn’t just aspirational — that he could actually snag the presidency — coincided with black support shifting away from Clinton and toward him.
The desire to win is understandable, given the intensity of the distrust, if not outright antipathy, toward Trump among black voters. His hand-waving at white nationalists; his nominations of judges with a history of championing racially discriminatory policies; his support for restrictive voting measures; his efforts to undermine Obamacare, a program that remains popular with African Americans; his hypocritical approach to criminal justice — backing sentencing reform while remaining indifferent to police misconduct — are some of the reasons African Americans want the president gone. A Quinnipiac poll taken last August found that 87 percent of black respondents did not think that Trump treats people of color with the same amount of respect as he treats white people, compared to only 7 percent who did. In particular, the insults the president has directed at a number of high-profile black women — Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), journalists Abby Phillip, Yamiche Alcindor and April Ryan — are interpreted not merely as Trump’s failure to govern in their interest but also as a mark of his personal hostility.
Another strong sign for Biden is his showing among black voters 45 and over, who constituted a majority of the 2016 black vote. The black voter turnout rate reached historic levels in 2008 and again in 2012, helping to reelect Obama, even, according to Census data, as African Americans 25 to 44 voted at about the same rate, and those under 25 voted at a significantly lower rate than in earlier elections. Older voters also tend to be more conservative, and older black voters are more risk-averse, as evidenced by a 2008 study by University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley showing that over-60 black voters were less likely to support Obama over Clinton.
None of this reflects poorly on other candidates’ appeals to black voters. (For instance, Warren’s policy-heavy pitch tackling racial disparities in housing, health care and education is starting to show positive results, especially with black female voters, as recently reported by the Associated Press.) And there’s no guarantee that Biden will hold his advantage once the debates and primaries begin. Should his campaign falter, the politics of pragmatism will drive black voters to look elsewhere for the best opportunity to win the White House. Candidates who are putting in the work today position themselves to absorb any black support that Biden leaks.
But for now, a viable Biden campaign is likely to remain the practical choice for most black voters. Pragmatism may not inspire, excite or check all the boxes on voters’ wish lists, but it may be what transforms Obama’s second-in-command into the country’s commander in chief.
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