There’s no winning the Democratic primary without winning the black vote.
Barack Obama won a higher percentage of black voters during his 2008 campaign than any candidate in history, which helped him score a surprising defeat against Hillary Clinton. Clinton, in turn, was able to defeat Sanders in 2016 in part because she did so well with people of color.
This year, wooing black voters will look different than ever before. There is a record number of serious nonwhite candidates running. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) have already launched their campaigns. Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. is also considering a run, The Washington Post reported.
Given the range of options, candidates who would have leaned heavily on the significance of representation will have to do more to distinguish themselves. Black activists and organizers hope this will lead to a national policy conversation that prioritizes the concerns of black voters, such as income inequality, criminal justice reform and challenges to the public and higher education systems.
The candidates “will have to not only put forth policy ideas, but show that they are rooted in our history and our struggle and be visionary,” political commentator Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina lawmaker, told The Fix.
Activist Johnetta Elzie told The Fix that the black community has to be concerned with more than being visible.
“For me, personally, representation — what does that mean for me when certain things happened and we see tear gas in the streets?” she said. “What does that mean when that was my experience and the person in the White House was black? Because one of the reasons I voted for him was representation — because he was black.
“But all of that trauma that I experienced in 2014 out in the streets [in Ferguson, Miss.,] protesting for Mike Brown — that happened with a president who looked like me.”
With a variety of candidates, voters will look closer to what activists and citizens of New Jersey and California say about the histories of Booker and Harris as lawmakers. Harris’s work as a prosecutor and the impact of her tough-on-crime approach on black families will be scrutinized, as will Booker’s relationship with Wall Street and the major pharmaceutical companies that he has gone on record defending.
“I want to see their policies and platforms, and really want to take a look at what they want and are proposing and how that will affect the black and other marginalized communities in this country,” Elzie said. “How self-aware are they as a candidate and as people, and do they know the issues that are currently happening in the country?”
Booker spent the morning of his announcement making media rounds on urban radio stations and national television, introducing himself to people less familiar with him. But in the upcoming months, Booker and other black candidates will have to spend significant time convincing black voters that their ideas for America will right the wrongs that so many of them say are more widespread since Obama left office.