Black voters matter. But can Democrats win them?

Theodore R Johnson


Now that Joe Biden has announced his bid for the presidency, the 2020 field of Democrats appears to be set at a crowded 20 candidates. Each of them is certainly aware that no Democrat in the last four decades has secured the party nomination without the support of a majority of black voters. And with so many candidates vying for the highest office this election cycle, the black electorate has special importance since black Americans comprise one in four primary voters overall and the majority of voters in the important southern states.

The insight is crystal clear: black votes matter.

Most of the candidates have not been shy about seeking out black audiences and making appeals. A few weeks ago, more than half of them spoke at the annual convention for the National Action Network, a civil rights organization run by Al Sharpton. Last week, nearly half of them made their cases to women of color during the She the People presidential forum. And several of them have made campaign stops at churches, community service events, and historically black colleges and universities.

With the first set of debates just a few weeks away, for which 16 of the 20 candidates have qualified, race is sure to be a prominent topic of discussion. So, how are they doing?

Broadly speaking, there are three approaches to winning over pragmatic black voters: sustained and earnest engagement, policy proposals, and appeals based on shared lived experiences. If these are the measures, then it becomes clearer which candidates have the inside track to securing black support.

There are three approaches to winning over black voters: sustained engagement, policy proposals, and appeals based on shared lived experiences

As with all voters, high name recognition matters, especially this early in the race. This helps explain the lead Biden and Bernie Sanders presently have among black voters. Through Biden’s time as Obama’s No 2 and Sanders’ 2016 campaign, black voters perceive both men as known quantities, a quality that has certain appeal to a bloc that is not prone to impetuousness.

The key for the remainder of the field is engaging black voters at the local level. While appearing at national conferences and seeking endorsements of high-profile black personalities are helpful, black voters want to examine their candidates up close and personal. Candidates must be intentional about making campaign stops at predominantly black locales, adequately staffing and funding community-based black outreach efforts, and establishing a drumbeat of activity instead of an album of photo-ops.

Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar have, to varying degrees, ensured black outreach is prioritized and not relegated it to campaign stop afterthoughts. The success of these efforts, however, is hard to measure and will only be apparent over time. But continual engagement is undoubtedly a prerequisite to the nomination, particularly for those with lower name recognition; failing to show up signals disinterest in the black electorate and ruins any chance at earning its support.

Political rhetoric and policy proposals are where the candidates are centering most of their outreach strategies. No party primary in the nation’s history has talked so explicitly about racism and racial disparities as this one. While all of the candidates acknowledge that race still plays an outsize role in outcomes for people of color, the campaigns’ positions on reparations have evolved into a facile way to distinguish them. Several of the candidates – Harris, Warren, Booker, Gillibrand, Castro, O’Rourke, Buttigieg and Gabbard, for example – have indicated they would sign legislation establishing a commission to study the issue.

When pressed for details on reparations, however, all of them – less fringe candidate Marianne Williamson – pivot away from direct payments and toward policy proposals that target specific racial gaps in wealth, housing and income. The good news for them all is that most black voters are unlikely to tie their support to this one issue.

The top issues for black voters are healthcare, employment and economic security, and education. Considered to be far too progressive just a couple years ago, a number of candidates now support universal plans like Medicare for all and free college. Some view these programs, or other tailored policy innovations like Booker’s baby bonds, to be more palatable approaches to reducing racial disparities by targeting inequality writ-large.

Warren’s policy agenda is the most notable for how creative and aggressive it is in attempting to single out and tackle racial disparities across the socioeconomic spectrum. She has rolled out a plan to increase home ownership among those most affected by the discriminatory practice of redlining, direct funding to HBCUs, and incentivize hospitals to reduce black maternal mortality.

But candidates should be wary about proposing policies further to the left under the impression that such positioning will improve their lot with black voters. Only 28% of black Democrats consider themselves liberal, while 70% identify as moderate or conservative. So popular ideas among the 2020 candidates, like marijuana legalization and new environmental regulations, are less so among black voters than others in the Democratic party. The party electorate is moving left, but the black electorate is not.

Yet, policy appeals are insufficient to move black voters. Campaign pledges concerning racial inequality rarely materialize, and, for a people with the history that black America has, a broken promise can be perilous. It’s for this reason that candidates who demonstrate a shared lived experience often fare well with black voters.

Candidates should be wary about proposing policies further to the left under the impression that it will improve their lot with black voters

Descriptive representation – when an official shares an identity with specific set of constituents – can mobilize and increase support among black voters. Naturally, this gives Harris and Booker an edge. This is because most citizens cannot afford to follow every candidate’s position on every issue, so believing that a candidate implicitly understands you provides some comfort that your concerns will be considered when decisions are made.

The difficulty, of course, is that each of these approaches interacts with one another in sometimes unpredictable ways. Biden’s dicey past on racial issues – his conduct toward Anita Hill, opposing school desegregation plans, and support for the contentious 1994 crime bill – must contest with the trust black voters already have in him from him tenure as Obama’s vice-president. These same voters looked past Hillary Clinton’s “super predator” remarks and supported her by wide margins over Sanders in 2016.

Similarly, Kamala Harris’s relatively conservative criminal justice record as California’s attorney general bumps up against shared lived experience. Sanders’ unwillingness to advocate for policies that specifically target racial disparities bounces against his high name recognition. Candidates riding a wave of enthusiasm, such as Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, find the fervor severely muted among black Americans with whom they have no established relationship.

And, of course, as the debates begin and the campaigns rage on, the standing of the candidates is bound to change. As each one receives more scrutiny, prospects will rise and fall. Importantly, black voters have demonstrated their pragmatism in reserving their votes for viable candidates, meaning frontrunners will have an edge with black voters in each primary no matter the policy proposals, engagement strategies, or shared experiences of those who finish at the bottom. Black voters back winners, a phenomenon that occurs because the winner tends to secure the black vote.

So, where does this leave us?

The state of the black voter support at this point in the primary is exactly as one would expect. The high name recognition candidates lead the pack, followed by those with appealing policy agendas and robust engagement strategies, and trailed by those who black voters simply don’t know or who haven’t prioritized engagement.

If black votes matter to the candidates, they will need to demonstrate how black voters are prioritized in their vision for America.

  • Theodore R Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice