The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With the most diverse presidential field ever, black voters ponder the best odds against Trump

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), a Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at the National Action Network’s annual convention Friday in New York. “In America, justice has not been applied equally for all,” she told her audience. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — More than a third of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president are women. There are two black men, a Mexican American man, a Taiwanese American man and a gay man.

Yet, in the initial phase of the 2020 race, two straight white men have emerged as the fastest fundraisers, and another has jumped to a lead in recent polls, before even announcing his candidacy.

The rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke and former vice president Joe Biden in a field with historic diversity has caused dismay among some Democrats, particularly African Americans and women hoping for a mold-breaking nominee who reflects the changing face of the party and the country.

Black voters, particularly black women, have the potential to play a decisive role in the Democratic Party’s attempt to defeat President Trump in 2020. An inability to earn their support has dealt severe blows to past candidates — most recently Sanders in the 2016 primaries and to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton in the general election.

That has led the current white male candidates in particular to seek out black voters with some urgency. They are opening the door to reparations, speaking openly about the legacy of slavery and offering blunt talk on racial injustice — a stark departure from past presidential campaigns in which candidates trod lightly around those topics.

As 11 presidential hopefuls appeared this week at a Midtown Manhattan hotel for the National Action Network convention, frustration emerged over the standing of the nonwhite candidates. But there was also tension between some black voters who want a candidate reflecting the nation’s diversity and others who perceive the white men as potentially stronger against Trump.

“Because I am a black woman, I want to see a black woman for president. And not just because she’s a black woman, but we have some excellent candidates,” said Lovelle Clark, a 65-year-old New Yorker who named Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and potentially Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a race for governor of Georgia last year. For many people, Clark said, “there is still this comfort level with what we’ve had for all but one president — and that is a white man.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) spoke Feb. 9 about empathy and race at a campaign event in Des Moines. (Video: Reuters)

She cheered Abrams during a Wednesday speech that electrified a heavily black audience at the National Action Network (NAN) gathering. The address culminated in chants of “Run, Stacey, run!” as Abrams left the door open to a White House bid.

Other Democrats said they view Biden, O’Rourke and Sanders as credible and compelling contenders best equipped to defeat Trump. The conflicting opinions revealed Democratic divisions touching on race, gender and identity that could shape the nomination fight.

“The old white guys have been in the political arena. They know what the job entails,” said Yvonne James, a 79-year-old New Yorker who carried a canvas bag at the convention with images of the Obamas and other “strong black men and women” stitched onto it. “So if it boils down to them or somebody who’s kind of new, let’s go with the experienced choice.”

In their speeches, the candidates spoke of criminal justice reform, economic disparities between blacks and whites, and the need to protect voting rights. They also endorsed a plan to create a commission to study reparations for descendants of slaves, a topic that NAN founder Al Sharpton pressed them on and that many attendees strongly favored.

Sanders, who has struggled to attract black voters to some campaign events and lost badly among African Americans to Clinton, found himself enthusiastically applauded Friday, particularly when he labeled Trump a “racist,” a “sexist” and “a homophobe.”

Sanders twice mentioned Barack Obama, with whom he shares little ideology. He also said that a “racial wealth gap exists because slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and predatory lending stole that wealth from African Americans.”

Democratic voters have become more racially diverse over the past couple of decades, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. In the midterm elections, a record number of women, predominantly Democrats, were elected to the House. Democrats expect African Americans — particularly women — to play a pivotal role in the 2020 primary race, beginning in South Carolina, the fourth contest in the lineup.

Those factors could complicate the path to the nomination for Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke. In addition to his past struggles with African Americans, Sanders has faced questions about his handling of sexual harassment claims in his 2016 campaign.

At least seven women have come forward publicly to say Biden made physical contact with them in past years in a way that made them uncomfortable, prompting him to promise to be more mindful of his interactions. Biden, who did not speak in New York, has signaled he will run for president but has not announced a decision.

O’Rourke has voiced remorse for comments that were seen by some as failing to acknowledge his white male privilege. Speaking at the NAN conference Wednesday morning, he focused on racial injustice.

“This schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline and this problem of mass incarceration is much deeper than police, than our courts. It is our country, and we absolutely must face it,” he said.

While the former Texas congressman and Senate candidate received cheers, some in the audience expressed uncertainty, saying they were not as familiar with him.

At this early point in the presidential campaign, the strengths of the white male candidates have come sharply into focus. The Sanders campaign this week said that it raised $18.2 million in its first 41 days, outpacing competitors who announced their totals. O’Rourke’s campaign said it raised $9.4 million in 18 days during the first quarter of the year. Both have cultivated loyal armies of small-dollar donors. Harris came in second among candidates who have released fundraising tallies so far, raising $12 million over a longer period than either O’Rourke or Sanders was in the race.

Biden has been a consistent leader in early state and national polls. Many Democrats attribute his early success — and that of O’Rourke and Sanders — to establishing a national following in previous campaigns, but they said that’s no guarantee of victory this time.

“It’s a little too early to make the determination that Democratic voters are rejecting one group of candidates to go with a more ‘traditional’ set,” said former attorney general Eric Holder, who also spoke at the conference.

It’s been 15 years since Democrats last nominated a white man for president, choosing John F. Kerry, who would go on to lose to George W. Bush in 2004. With so many strong alternatives this time, some Democrats say, they aren’t keen on doing that in 2020.

“That’s the American norm; people vote for what they know. But the old, safe norm is what got Trump in there. I think it’s time to shake up things a little bit,” said Tiffany James, the 37-year-old head of NAN’s South Carolina branch. She arrived at the convention in a shirt that read “Black Women 2020” — promoting a push to put their agenda front and center.

Presidential candidate Julián Castro said in an interview that it is “important for all of the voices to be heard during this primary.” He expressed confidence that the party would embrace the eventual nominee, under one condition: “If they feel like everybody’s been heard.”

Other White House hopefuls who spoke at the convention sought to put their own touches on common themes.

“In America, justice has not been applied equally for all,” said Harris, who kicked off a quick succession of speeches Friday. “In the last two years, it has gotten even worse.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Friday that she was willing to end the Senate’s legislative filibuster, arguing that it has been “a tool to block progress on racial justice.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), seeking like Harris to become the nation’s second black president, spoke with the cadence of a preacher toward the end of remarks in which he said the country was at a “moral moment.”

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, made a point Thursday of saying the words “black lives matter” in his speech. Speaking to reporters afterward, he expressed contrition for previously using the term “all lives matter.”

Some of Biden’s backers argued that he would provide the gravitas and experience needed to defeat Trump. But there was also some concern that his advanced age could be a liability. Biden is 76, and Sanders is 77.

“The job of a president requires a lot of energy. A lot of legwork,” said retiree Jacob Azeke, 77, of New York.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez touted the diversity of the field in an impassioned speech at the convention, his voice reaching a scream. In an interview, he cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions about the early success of the white male candidates.

“This is a marathon, and we’re about four miles into it,” said Perez.