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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Joe Biden’s Debt to African-American Voters

As Joe Biden officially won the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination (or at least lost his remaining rival), I looked back at his victory and found a common thread, which I wrote up at New York:

Looming in the foreground, of course, is COVID-19 and its drastic effect on the remaining primaries and the overall political climate. But recalling that Biden really won the nomination in an amazing sprint in late February and early March, after a dismal beginning to the cycle for the former veep’s campaign, it’s pretty clear in retrospect that he owes everything to African-American voters. Let us count the ways:

1. Elevating Him Over Cory and Kamala

There were two highly credible African-American candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential field, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Both of them hoped to replicate Barack Obama’s 2008 path to victory with a strong early showing in lily-white Iowa followed by a breakthrough in majority-black (among Democratic primary voters) South Carolina. But Joe Biden’s strength among black voters in and beyond the Palmetto State — far more durable than Hillary Clinton’s in 2008 — remained an immovable object.

Booker never caught fire much of anywhere, and despite spending a lot of time in South Carolina, never showed any signs of cutting into Biden’s black support there. Harris had one moment of hope after politely brutalizing Biden’s record on school desegregation in a June 2019 debate, and even saw a spike in black support in South Carolina. But it wasn’t impressive or enduring: A late-July Monmouth poll in that crucial state showed her being crushed by Biden among South Carolina’s African-Americans by a 51/12 margin.

2. His Saving Grace in Nevada

After finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign was on death’s door. But then he finished second in the Nevada caucuses on February 22, and in conjunction with a terrible debate performance by Michael Bloomberg, the former veep was back in the discussion heading toward the last early-state primary in South Carolina a week later and then Super Tuesday on March 3.

Had Biden slipped behind Pete Buttigieg in Nevada, where the former mayor put on a strong and well-financed effort, he might have been written off for good. And according to entrance polls, Biden trailed Mayor Pete by four points among white voters (two-thirds of the total) in the state, and didn’t beat him that badly among Latinos. But among the 11 percent of Nevada caucusgoers who are African-American, Biden trounced Buttigieg 38/2 and nailed down the runner-up position behind Sanders.

3. His Big Win in South Carolina

The whole narrative of the 2020 nominating contest flipped on February 29 when Biden won a big victory in South Carolina, winning nearly half the vote against what was then still a large field, and beating second-place Bernie Sanders by nearly 30 points. Sixty-one percent of the state’s African-American voters, well over half the primary electorate, went for Biden, who not only eclipsed Sanders’s support among young voters of all races but limited Tom Steyer — who made a last-gasp bid for black voters via heavy advertising and a big retail campaign presence — to 13 percent of the African-American vote.

The fact that Biden finally won a state was crucial to his shadow battle with Bloomberg, who for a time was close to supplanting Biden entirely as the candidate of Democratic centrists — and was becoming a threat to win black voters as well. As I noted at the time, Biden had some crucial momentum after South Carolina’s black voters saved him again:

“Between centrists looking for a champion against Bernie and regular Democrats wanting a viable alternative to either career non-Democrat, the former veep has a strong potential coalition and — if he can strongly outperform Bloomberg on Super Tuesday — a good shot at his own two-candidate race against Bernie.”

4. Croaking Pete ‘n’ Amy

It’s generally recognized that the last-minute conjoined endorsements of Biden by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar on the eve of Super Tuesday had a lot to do with his performance not only in beating Bloomberg but in winding up with more delegates than consensus-favorite Sanders. What is less well-understood is that black voters made the departure of these two centrist candidates from the field inevitable.

Buttigieg famously worked hard to overcome an antipathy toward his candidacy among African-Americans. Klobuchar had her own problems in this demographic, which she never even began to resolve. When black voters became a factor in the primaries, the inability of either candidate to show any traction with them became an obvious sign they weren’t going anywhere as the primary electorate grew more diverse. In Nevada, Pete ‘n’ Amy each got 2 percent of the African-American vote. In South Carolina, Buttigieg won 3 percent of the black vote and Klobuchar won one percent. It was time for them to go, and they did so at the perfect time for Biden.

5. Vaulting Him Into the Lead on Super Tuesday

On March 3, Biden began putting together the coalition of minority and white-suburban supporters that made him the nominee via wins in ten of the 14 states holding contests that day. Again, though, African-Americans were his base: According to exit polls he won 58 percent of black voters across this vast landscape. The example set by South Carolina’s electorate, and amplified by high-profile endorsements from black opinion-leaders like Jim Clyburn, appeared to boost Biden into the coveted position of leading a multiracial coalition that looked like the Democratic Party as a whole.

6. Sealing the Deal in March

Before the coronavirus put a halt to the 2020 primaries (except for the botched, Republican-engineered April 7 event in Wisconsin), black voters again were crucial to Biden’s drive to presumptive-nominee status. In the March 10 Michigan primary that Sanders supporters thought he might win, Biden won comfortably, in no small part because he won two-thirds of the black vote. On March 17, where three states (Arizona, Florida, and Illinois) held virtually all-voting-by-mail contests, Biden won a sweep, with even higher margins among African-Americans, joined increasingly by white working-class and suburban college-educated voters.

All in all, it’s very clear that Joe Biden would have never survived the tough early going in 2020 without his base of African-American support, particularly if his rivals had managed to take away a significant share of that same support.

To the extent that black support for Biden is attributable to the power of his electability credentials among an element of the electorate determined to get rid of Donald Trump, it’s a good start for him in building an enthusiastic general election coalition. But it also suggests a political debt that may go deeper than Biden’s constant proclamations of loyalty to his great benefactor Barack Obama.

In choosing the woman who will serve as his vice-presidential nominee, the pressure on Joe Biden to thank African-Americans with a running mate from their ranks — a reciprocal gesture to the one Obama made in choosing him in 2008 — could be considerable. If, of course, there’s anyone else who tangibly could help improve the odds of beating Trump, black voters will likely again go with the winning formula.

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