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Joe Biden wouldn’t be the Democratic nominee for president without Black voters. His campaign appeared to be on life support after the first three primary states. His chances were revived by a decisive victory in South Carolina, where he won 60 percent of the Black vote. By the end of Super Tuesday, which featured several other states with large Black populations, he had all but sewed up the nomination.
Biden will once again need support from Black voters if he hopes to defeat President Trump in November, but this time the challenge is slightly different. Unlike in the primary, there’s little risk of his opponent taking in a sizable chunk of the Black vote. The issue for the former vice president is whether enough Black voters will cast ballots for him to win.
Black voters make up about 12 percent of the U.S. electorate. They consistently have one of the highest turnout rates of any ethnic group. But because they have overwhelmingly supported Democrats, the difference between average and above-average Black turnout can have a major impact on elections. In 2012, about 66 percent of eligible Black voters cast ballots, the highest rate of any ethnic group. In 2016, Black turnout fell to 59 percent. That drop-off was one of the key reasons Trump pulled off narrow victories over Hillary Clinton in a handful of key swing states.
Why there’s debate
Members of Biden’s camp see reasons for optimism that he may be able to boost Black turnout to the levels needed to win the election. His success with Black voters during the primary and backing from prominent Black figures suggest Biden has a strong well of support, they argue. The selection of Kamala Harris, who is Black and South Asian, as his running mate may also help Black voters feel they would be represented in the White House.
Some of the reasons to expect high Black turnout have little to do with Biden. Trump is deeply unpopular with Black voters, with a significant majority saying he is racist. Black voters may vote in large numbers more as a referendum on Trump than as an endorsement of Biden. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months may be fueling higher enthusiasm among Black voters.
Despite these advantages, there are reasons for Biden to worry about Black turnout, experts say. Though they are often discussed as a unified group, there is some variance in the political leanings between different groups of Black voters. The most significant difference is in terms of age. Biden has the overwhelming support of older Black voters. But Black voters under 30 are much more skeptical of the former vice president specifically and more likely to feel that voting doesn’t matter at all. Biden may have hurt his chances with Black voters with some of his recent gaffes when discussing race and the election.
Perhaps surprisingly, Trump’s campaign has attempted to court Black voters in hopes of shrinking Biden’s advantage with the group. Even if those efforts are only marginally successful, a 1 to 2 percent shift in support among Black voters could be enough to tip closely contested swing states. Black voters are also much more likely to be denied the opportunity to vote by things like voter ID laws, felony disenfranchisement and subpar election infrastructure.
Black Lives Matter can boost enthusiasm among Black voters
“Right now, the issues around Black Lives Matter is an opportunity for Biden to attempt to appeal to those voters, because those young people are a lot of the people who are being very vocal about what they want to change. And he has space here to show that he would be taking a more progressive stance on these types of policy issues.” — Political scientist Chryl Laird to NPR
Black voters’ dislike of Trump overrides any issues they have with Biden
“Of course, Biden is aided by how Black Americans view Trump. He’s deeply unpopular and broadly viewed by Blacks as racist.” — Philip Bump, Washington Post
Kamala Harris will help Black voters feel represented
“Harris brings Biden a direct link to the party’s African-American base, reflecting his team’s strategy of generating excitement and high turnout in Black communities.” — Errol Lewis, CNN
Trump can’t court black voters without turning off white suburban voters
“The president believes that Black men will respond to his macho presentation of self, allowing him to cut into the Black vote enough to repeat his 2016 triumphs in Wisconsin and Michigan. (He has given up on Black women.) But his appeals to Black men cut against his strategy for recapturing the white suburban women who abandoned the Republicans in the 2018 midterms.” — William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institution
Democrats shouldn’t take Black voters for granted or treat them as a monolith
“Pundits often portray Black Americans as an undifferentiated mass — loyal Democrat-supporting foot soldiers who will execute their mission for The Team on Tuesday as long as some preacher provides the right marching orders on Sunday. If these depictions have not already expired, they are certainly growing stale.” — David C. Barker and Sam Fullwood III, Conversation
Young Black voters don’t have faith in the electoral system
“Young African Americans don’t have confidence that the system will or can function in a way that will advantage their lives. They have no evidence — or little evidence — that the system will improve their lives. When they engage with the system, more often than not, it is adverse. In some ways, it is destructive and life-threatening to them. As a result of that, they have little inclination to engage with that system.” — Political scientist Sam Fulwood III to Time
Democrats need to present a clear vision for systemic change to convince Black voters
“The motivation for Democrats’ warm embrace of Black Lives Matter can’t be simply that Black Votes Matter. The Democrats’ platform has been full of that sentiment for a long time. Biden still has to prove to many — Black and Latino voters, young folks, and those far to the left of him — that he can be trusted on these issues; that he is worth braving a pandemic and weaving through voter suppression tactics to cast a ballot for.” — Jerry Brewer, Washington Post
Biden’s legislative history undercuts his efforts to convince Black voters he’s on their side
“Biden has avoided any clear apology for his role in deepening the systemic racism in public policy that he now pledges to oppose. … Biden’s failure to meaningfully acknowledge his role in constructing the “color-blind” racial regime of the post-civil-rights era, structured around calls for law and order and the coded deprecation of poor Black women, has clouded his newfound epiphany concerning racial justice.” — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker
Black voters face greater hurdles to voting than other groups
“Black voters still face hurdles to the ballot box because of the strains on election systems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and racial inequalities in elections that existed long before the virus.” — Grace Panetta, Business Insider
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