Black voters hold the key to 2020 presidential election

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to community faith leaders after serving breakfast during a visit to Dulan’s Soul Food on Crenshaw in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

For all the strategic calculations, sophisticated voter targeting and relentless talk about electability in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential nomination will be determined by a decidedly different group: black voters.

African Americans will watch as mostly white voters in the first two contests express preferences and winnow the field — then they will almost certainly anoint the winner.

So far, that helps explain the front-running status of former Vice President Joe Biden. He has name recognition, a relationship with America’s first black president and decades long Democratic resume. Black voters have long been at the foundation of his support — his home state of Delaware, where he served as a U.S. senator for nearly four decades, is 38 percent black — and until another presidential candidate proves that he or she can beat him, he is likely to maintain that support.

In the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton held a strong lead among black voters over Barack Obama until he stunned her by winning the Iowa caucuses and proved to black voters that he was acceptable to a broad spectrum of Democrats. Those same voters returned to Clinton in 2016.

This cycle, many black voters are also making a pragmatic choice — driven as much or more by who can defeat President Donald Trump as the issues they care about — and sitting back to see which candidate white voters are comfortable with before deciding whom they will back.

At the same time, the early courtship of black voters, overt and subtle, is part of a primary within the primary that includes detailed plans on issues like criminal justice reform, reparations, maternal mortality among black women, voter suppression and systemic racism.

“As black voters and movers and drivers of national politics, our self-image and awareness of our power and influence is evolving,” said Aimee Allison, founder of the She the People network, which hosted the first presidential forum aimed specifically at female voters of color.

Trump appealed to black voters during the 2016 campaign by saying “What the hell do you have to lose?” and ended up with only 8 percent of the black vote. But the Republican president again is saying he will try to win over black voters, frequently citing low unemployment and his own success in signing criminal justice legislation. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that he will succeed.

But the first test of the decisiveness of black voters will come in the primaries. African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population but 24 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. That number is more formidable in the early primary state of South Carolina, where black voters are two-thirds of primary voters, and in other early voting states like Georgia, Alabama and Virginia.

Biden reminded black reporters in a recent roundtable that his strength is not just with working class whites, but with the black voters he’s known for more than half a century in politics.

“After all this time, they think they have a sense of what my character is and who I am, warts and all,” Biden said. “I’ll be surprised if you find any African Americans that think I’m not in on the deal, that I’m not who I say I am … I’ve never, ever, ever in my entire life been in circumstances where I’ve ever felt uncomfortable being in the black community.”

He acknowledged that his familiarity is no assurance of success. And he noted that black voters may ultimately prefer black candidates like Sens. Kamala Harris of California or Cory Booker of New Jersey. First, though, one of them would have to prove to black voters that they were viable alternatives.

Black voters can be decisive not only in determining the Democrats’ nominee but also the ultimate winner. While Democrats have peaked in recent cycles with white voters at around 40 percent, black voters have been their most loyal constituency.

But in 2016, a drop-off among black voters had consequences. Black voter turnout dropped from 65.3 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent, and Hillary Clinton received 89 percent of the black vote, compared with 93 percent for Barack Obama in 2012 and 95 percent in 2008.

“It comes down to a strategy decision that campaigns have to make: Do they believe that the way to win the White House is to win white voters, or do they believe that the way to White House is to mobilize voters of color?” said Leah Daughtry, who recently hosted a 2020 Democratic forum for black faith voters in Atlanta.

“Is there a strategy that allows you to do both? Perhaps,” Daughtry said. “But one is a sure bet. If you get us to the polls, we are most likely to vote Democrat. If you get white folks to the polls, you don’t know what they’re going to do.”

In the past, Biden would have been a prohibitive favorite, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. But black voters are demanding that candidates deliver on their priorities in a way they haven’t done in recent history.

“Black folks are looking to figure out who white voters are going to align with, but I don’t think that’s the driver that it has been in the past,” she continued. “Black voters, like white voters, are increasingly frustrated with the process. No longer is it good enough to choose between the devil or the witch.”

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Dem dilemma: How hard to hit Trump on his racism

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Hillary Clinton took the stage in Reno, Nevada, with an urgent warning about the consequences of a Donald Trump administration: “He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties. Trump is reinforcing harmful stereotypes and offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters. It’s a disturbing preview of what kind of president he’d be.”

Seventy-five days later, Trump would be president-elect.

As a new crop of Democrats competes for the chance to take on Trump in 2020, they are going even further than Clinton did, with some saying the president is a white supremacist. But Clinton’s experience poses difficult questions for the White House hopefuls. Pointing out then-candidate Trump’s racist actions wasn’t enough to defeat him in 2016 — and may not help Democrats next year.

“Hillary Clinton took every sling and arrow imaginable when she called out Trump on his courtship of white supremacy in the 2016 race,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on Clinton’s campaign. “When our campaign named and shamed Trump’s behavior, we were accused of playing the race card. Her predictions may have actually understated how much of an existential crisis the Trump presidency would be for minorities in America.”

The issue has taken on greater urgency this month following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that’s believed to be motivated by racism. The shooting suspect echoed Trump’s warnings of a Latino “invasion.”

Trump insists he’s not a racist and throws the label back at Democrats, accusing them of political correctness and recklessly wielding the term.

Still, Trump gained notoriety in the late 1980s for taking out a newspaper ad calling for the death penalty for five black and Hispanic teenagers who were wrongly convicted of rape. He launched his 2016 campaign with a speech that referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and a pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country. Weeks before the 2016 election, he denigrated cities with large black populations as poor and dangerous, asking black voters, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

In office, he has equated torch-bearing white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, with peaceful protesters opposing their efforts to preserve a Confederate statue. He referred to African and Caribbean nations as “shithole” countries and told four American congresswomen of color to “go back” to countries “from which they came.”

There’s near unanimity among Democrats that candidates can’t ignore Trump’s racist actions. But there is debate over how far to go and whether to focus on more traditional issues like health care, prescription drugs, infrastructure and education.

Candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have agreed that the white supremacist label is appropriate for Trump. Joe Biden accused Trump of “fanning the flames of white supremacy.”

But some Democratic voters questioned whether such labeling might prove counterproductive. After all, Trump supporters wore Clinton’s denunciation of them as “deplorables” as a badge of honor.

“If every candidate jumps on that same bandwagon, it just throws everybody into the same pot,” said Erick McEnaney, 57, of Kansas City, Missouri. “I would refrain from even talking about him, actually. Talk about what’s important to the American people.”

As nearly two dozen candidates swung through Iowa recently, the issue was prominent. Democrats in the state that kicks off the presidential nomination process still take pride in Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa win. That victory proved that a black candidate could win in a state that’s more than 90% white, sealing his status as a viable candidate.

Buttigieg, who has been outspoken on matters of race in the campaign, told a diverse gathering at a house party just outside Des Moines, Iowa, that a “big part of this conversation” regarding race “has to happen with white audiences.”

“White nationalism is a white problem,” said Buttigieg, who is white. “It has victims of color and is wrecking the whole country. But it is a problem among white people, which is why I think somebody who has some of the benefits and advantages of my own profile needs to be out there as vocal as anybody talking about it.”

Karin Derry, a state representative who is white, watched Buttigieg speak from across the room. She questioned whether labeling the president a white supremacist is “particularly helpful,” but welcomed the conversation overall, saying it would resonate in Iowa.

“I want to see them talking about it because quite frankly the way President Trump talks, it’s unacceptable,” said Derry, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate. “I think candidates need to call him out on it.”

During his swing through Iowa, Biden stopped short of directly calling Trump a white supremacist. But he said the “distinction” isn’t as important as how Trump uses the megaphone of the presidency.

That approach was good enough for Vicky Beer, a retired schoolteacher.

“I certainly think you can call him a white supremacist because it might open somebody’s eyes to what he is,” said Beer, 62, who hasn’t yet committed to a candidate for February’s caucus. Still, Beer said she’s not necessarily caught up in how the candidates assail Trump, if they do so.

“It’s a given,” she said, that whichever Democrat emerges as the nominee will “have more authority than he does.”

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow, Alexandra Jaffe and Steven Sloan contributed to this report.
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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved