This week’s 2020 Democratic primary debates mark the first time that candidates will directly interact with one another in a largely unscripted environment. For former Vice President Joe Biden, the debates arrive as the candidate continues to deal with a number of controversies that center on how he does (and oftentimes does not) talk about race.
Collectively, these controversies have raised questions about the stability of his support among black voters.
They include Biden’s comments about working with segregationist senators, his support for and role shepherding the passage of the 1994 crime bill, and his opposition to busing in Delaware in the 1970s. And they’ve fueled concerns that despite his record on other civil rights issues and his close ties with black communities in places like South Carolina, Biden is out of step with the portion of the Democratic Party electorate that has moved to the left on matters of racial justice due to the continued work and prominence of black activists and a resultant shift in attitudes among some white liberals.
And for black voters, who account for much of Biden’s base at this (very early) stage of the 2020 primary, the question is if these issues — and Biden’s at times limited efforts to respond to them — will lead to him losing support among a key demographic.
So far, polling shows that a loss of support has not happened. Biden continues to be well out in front of a large and still growing primary field, and black voters are a large part of why. But in a primary that already has several candidates fighting for this group (including two black senators and other politicians with race-conscious policies), Biden’s lead at this point is far from indestructible.
If anything, the 2020 election cycle thus far shows something that black journalists, political strategists, and activists have long argued: that black voters — even as they are the most loyal and consistent Democratic Party voters — are not a monolithic group. In a year when voters have so many options, it’s possible they may not line up behind a single candidate as strongly as they have in recent cycles, instead spreading out support among a handful of candidates.
It suggests that Biden, even as he holds a commanding lead in states like South Carolina and touts more favorable parts of his civil rights record, cannot take black voters for granted. In fact, it is likely that his — and other candidates’ — fight for the support of black voters is only beginning.
Biden currently has strong support among black voters. But he also faces several controversies.
Even before he officially entered the race in May, Biden had faced criticism for parts of his record and what it might mean in today’s more diverse Democratic Party.
In March, for example, the Washington Post reported on Biden’s previous comments about school desegregation efforts in Delaware, noting that the then-first-term US senator sponsored legislation encouraging courts and districts to consider alternatives to racially integrating schools through a busing program. When contacted for comment, a Biden spokesperson told the Post that the former vice president did not regret his stance. “As he said during those many years of debate, busing would not achieve equal opportunity. And it didn’t.” Biden’s record on the issue has frustrated some education activists, who note that similar comments are still used to oppose school integration.
More recently, Biden has found himself in a different controversy stemming from the same 1970s time period: his work with senators like Mississippi’s James Eastland, a virulent racist who openly supported segregation and called African Americans “an inferior race.” After saying that he disagreed with the ideologies of people like Eastland, Biden told an audience at a June 18 fundraiser that during their time serving together in the Senate, “at least there was some civility.” He added that Eastland “never called me boy, he always called me son.”
Several of Biden’s 2020 opponents later slammed his remarks; Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) had particularly strong reactions, noting how politicians like Eastland had long worked to keep black people an underclass in the US.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” Booker wrote in a statement shortly after Biden’s remarks were published. “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”
Biden later argued that Booker should apologize for the statement, telling reporters that “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” He maintained that he was not praising segregationists like Eastland or their viewpoints in his remarks, instead saying that he was simply acknowledging a period in Washington where political and ideological differences did not stop politicians from working together.
But some, like Booker, wonder why it was worth bringing up segregationists at all. Biden has continued to defend himself in the days since, telling MSNBC host and civil rights figure Al Sharpton over the weekend that his “boy” comment was taken out of context, and that “to the extent that anybody thought that I meant something different, that is not what I intended.”
Reactions to Biden’s remarks have been mixed among black politicians and voters, with some saying his comments weren’t offensive, as others beg to differ. A third group say the remarks were a “mistake” that Biden must avoid repeating in the future, but add that as of now, he has not lost their support.
And then there’s Biden’s support for and authorship of the 1994 crime bill, legislation that has been heavily criticized in recent years for giving a federal mandate to a system of mass incarceration that continues to disproportionately affect communities of color. As Vox’s German Lopez has noted, saying the crime bill was the driver of mass incarceration in America oversimplifies what happened, but even so, the measure is “only one piece of Biden’s much longer history backing ‘tough on crime’ policies that at the very least attempted to escalate incarceration nationwide.”
Biden, who served as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the bill passed, has at times attempted to downplay his role in the law’s passage, arguing that the measure was needed and that there was strong political support for it. Still, Biden’s support and defense of his work on the measure has fueled concerns among some Democratic voters and activists that Biden may not be a progressive enough candidate on criminal justice issues, many of which disproportionately impact African Americans.
Black voters aren’t a monolith, and many aren’t settled on Biden just yet
As of now, polling has shown that if parts of Biden’s record are concerning voters, it hasn’t really cut into his lead. A new Economist/YouGov poll finds that Biden leads the field, a position he has held in every primary poll to this point. The Economist/YouGov poll also found that 40 percent of black voters view Biden favorably, and that 39 percent of black voters would back him if their state held a primary or caucus today. Biden has also received support — and some endorsements — from members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond (who also serves as a Biden campaign co-chair), and also continues to be backed by several black politicians in states like South Carolina, who argue that Biden is the best candidate for black voters this cycle.
Given Biden’s consistent lead in the polls, there’s been some analysis that black voters simply don’t care about Biden’s old comments or his recent missteps on the campaign trail. And while that could be the case for the voters backing him most vocally now, it’s also possible that things are a bit more complicated for others.
It comes down to understanding that different groups of black voters are prioritizing different issues. There are also different reasons why black voters are (and, in some cases, aren’t) supporting any given candidate.
This is helpful to keep in mind when looking at Biden. Academics, political strategists, pollsters, and Biden’s black supporters have all given various explanations for why Biden has the highest black support at this point in the primary.
Obviously, there are voters who — based on his record and long history in politics — believe that Biden would be the most effective president and accomplish the most, policy-wise. Others say Biden is the only current 2020 candidate who can beat President Trump, making him the best choice for a highly pragmatic group of voters. Some pollsters have argued that his current support is because he has the highest name recognition in the primary field. And then there’s the fact that he served as the second-in-command for the country’s first black president, something several of his supporters have cited approvingly and that Biden has referenced repeatedly.
At this stage, it’s too early to say which of these is pushing many black voters to currently back Biden. In fact, it’s likely that a number of these influences overlap.
It’s also true that Biden has more support among older black voters than younger ones. Many of Biden’s supporters have told reporters that they have voted Democrat for decades, whereas Biden’s support among less frequent voters and young voters who do not identify as staunch Democrats is not as stable or large (though he still leads among all demographics of black voters currently).
“There’s generational differences in the level of support for Biden,” says Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a group that does election polling and works on voter engagement in black communities. “While he’s leading across all age demographics, the level of support among younger voters is lower.”
“If there is movement or erosion among Biden’s support [in the future], it is more likely among these voters,” she says, noting that young black voters are far more likely to be moved by policy agendas than specific candidates.
Then there are some critics who argue that Biden is focusing too much on convincing moderate white voters rather than trying to appeal to the black voters who make up much of the party base. And Biden’s difficulties discussing his record, his string of controversial statements, and his lack of concern over how his remarks can come across in black communities have led to critiques that he does not understand the needs of black voters.
“Biden leans on his proximity to Obama as a proxy for how good he is on race, but almost every time he opens his mouth we learn how little he knows about the racism regularly made plain when President Obama was in the White House,” Emory University law professor Dorothy Brown recently wrote in CNN.
Age aside, some black voters have said that they are open to switching their support from Biden, or have already expressed support for other candidates, many of whom have been more vocal than Biden recently when it comes to issues affecting black communities. There are also a lot of voters who say they haven’t decided on a candidate at all yet.
Shropshire tells me that because of this, using polling to determine the strength of Biden’s support and how voters are responding to his comments may miss key things. “The real issue for him will be that if he leaves the primary without addressing his record, comments, and controversies head on, that could hurt him in the general,” she says.
Polls of black voters show they care strongly about racism, education, and the economy. Biden needs to prove himself on all three.
With eight months before primary voting starts, it’s too early to tell how much support Biden will garner when it matters. Still, as things stand currently, he faces a slightly different challenge than his opponents: Where they are trying to build support among black voters, he is trying to maintain his lead and potentially grow it further.
This is all happening in a very competitive primary for black voters, marked by candidate debates over topics like racial justice, policing, reparations, gentrification, student debt, and the economy. Almost all the candidates have made at least one trip to South Carolina (where black voters comprise more than 60 percent of the primary electorate); top candidates banking on support in the state — Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Harris, and Booker — have made multiple trips. On June 22, more than 20 Democratic candidates all attended a fish fry hosted annually by influential South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a further signal of how much they want to at least maintain an image of courting black voters.
But what many black voters want to see is policy. In recent months, black political strategists and academics have noted that in this cycle in particular, black voters are looking for politicians to specifically — and consistently — discuss how they plan to address a range of racial disparities. And as some candidates, like Warren, begin to release plans addressing some of these issues, there have already been shifts in candidate rankings in some polling, suggesting that black voters are responding to detailed policy discussions.
While it’s probably not the best idea to rely heavily on what polls suggest about candidate support this early in the campaign, polling is helpful in understanding the types of issues voters want addressed. Polling of black Americans from groups like BlackPAC, the Black Futures Lab, and the Black Economic Alliance has found that black communities are worried about racism, health care, education, policing, and the economy and are strongly against President Trump. But many are keeping their options open when it comes to supporting a candidate.
All of this suggests that while Biden is the primary frontrunner, it is far too early to make assumptions about the permanence of his — or any candidates’ — black support. On Thursday, Biden’s first time onstage for a 2020 debate could offer a glimpse into what he plans to do to strengthen his support among black voters, and if he plans to truly meet their policy concerns.