The Obama link is the main attraction, but they also want to keep their health insurance and cars.
Your typical black Democratic primary voter is likely to be middle-aged and female, and right now Joe Biden is her guy. But who’s her second choice?
There is general agreement that black voters, while a small percentage of all voters, could again play an outsize role in determining the Democratic presidential nominee and the outcome of next year’s election. Blacks are concentrated in important primary states, such as South Carolina, as well as in the cities of key battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Perhaps taking them for granted, Hillary Clinton failed to mobilize enough black voters in 2016, when black voter turnout fell in a presidential election for the first time in 20 years. Mr. Biden believes he can succeed where she failed, and perhaps he can. His popularity among blacks obviously stems from his eight-year stint as Barack Obama’s vice president. He is quick to invoke Mr. Obama’s name in front of black audiences and to defend their administration’s policy victories, such as ObamaCare. Mr. Biden is also more politically moderate than most of his rivals, which sits well with older blacks who are more likely to vote.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth Warren has risen steadily in the polls, while Mr. Biden’s campaign has been marked by mediocre debate performances and poor fundraising. A Ukraine scandal involving his son is now at the center of the impeachment drama, which at the very least makes it awkward for Mr. Biden to weigh in on the proceedings. Technically, he’s still the front-runner, but he looks like someone barely holding on to his lead, not poised to pull away from the pack. And if his campaign ultimately falters, Biden supporters face a dilemma.
Pete Buttigieg is reportedly making a play for the Biden moderates. But he has next to no black support, and his marriage to a man could be a significant barrier to changing that, especially among older, socially conservative blacks casting primary votes. Recall that blacks voted overwhelmingly in favor of banning same-sex marriage in California in 2008. Support for gay marriage has grown since then among all groups, but the change in attitude is being driven by younger people, and a racial gap remains.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of whites now approve of same-sex unions, versus only 51% of blacks.
The two black Democrats running for president, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have been highlighting racial issues like slavery reparations and segregation. But black voters have shown little interest in either candidate, which may be progress of a sort. What made Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris interesting Democrats to begin with was their willingness to stand up to the party’s left wing on issues like school choice and tough law enforcement. But both changed their tune to run for president as progressives, and perhaps black voters think the obvious racial pandering speaks to their character.
Unfortunately, older blacks might also balk at the fact that Ms. Harris is married to a white man. As Obama biographer David Remnick and others have noted, it mattered to black supporters of Mr. Obama back in 2008 that his wife was black. The future president had an exotic background, and Michelle Obama helped people settle the matter of how he identified. Commentators on CNN have discussed how Ms. Harris, the product of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, identifies as well, and the same older black primary voters who take issue with Mr. Buttigieg’s husband might also have a problem with hers.
Mr. Biden’s closest competitors are Bernie Sanders and Ms. Warren, and surveys show that they stand to gain the most, particularly among younger black voters, if he fades. But there’s little reason to believe that older blacks are eager to follow suit. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released in early October showed that 43% of blacks 50 and older were “enthusiastic” about Mr. Biden, versus 17% for Ms. Warren and 14% for Mr. Sanders. Mr. Sanders is no longer shouted down at his rallies by black activists like he was four years ago, but his support remains largely confined to black millennials. And some black voters may never get past Ms. Warren’s refusal to admit that she lied about being a racial minority to advance her professional career.
The older blacks who are backing Mr. Biden believe that he has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump. They want to keep their medical insurance and their gas-powered cars. They understand that national borders are important, and they don’t want their taxes raised to finance free health care for illegal immigrants. And if Joe Biden, or someone who starts sounding like him, isn’t on the ballot, many of them might just stay home again. Ask Mrs. Clinton how that turned out for her.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images