When the next Democratic presidential debate is held on Dec. 19 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, at least six white candidates will be on the stage: Joe Biden, former Vice President under President Barack Obama; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator; Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator; Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager; and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator. New York tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is of Taiwanese descent, qualiﬁed on Tuesday.
Those likely to be absent include New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, an African American; former housing secretary Julian Castro, a Latino; and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Samoan native. For a joyous moment, the candidates reflected the diversity of the party.
Not being on the debate stage is a handicap, especially in fundraising, but it can be overcome with direct campaigning, especially in the African American community, who will probably hold the key to the all-important nomination. This is already being seen in South Carolina, the fourth state to hold a primary, after overwhelmingly white Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, and where they are 60 percent of the voters.
Several candidates have been engaged in outreach but not enough yet to counter the outsized support which Biden commands because of his eight years at the side of the ﬁrst African American president. But the African American vote is not monolithic, as is the case of the “Trumpers” – the white 40 percent or so of voters who support the incumbent.
Polls indicate that the staunchest Biden backers among African Americans are older voters, still overjoyed that they have lived to see a black man in the White House. But there are other constituents in the African American community, most notably women and millennials. There is also a split between those who prefer a candidate who will, ﬁnally, champion African American causes – even more that Obama did – and those whose chief concern is electability.
That is what The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. discovered when he interviewed African American voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina in May. “Ousting Trump is a key issue for large chunks of Democratic voters and African Americans are no exception,” he wrote, “but, for some, the desire is so strong it’s worth tabling issues they feel are singularly important for black Americans.”
Putting those issues on hold will require a big sacriﬁce. The Black Economic Alliance surveyed 1,063 African American voters in April and found that 84 percent were worried about hiring discrimination, 83 percent about the wage gap with whites and 81 percent “said it was hard to achieve the American dream today,” Reuters’ Amanda Becker reported.
The ﬁfth annual Power of the Sister Vote survey, published by Essence magazine in conjunction with the Black Women Roundtable, found that criminal justice and police reform was the primary concern for 48 percent of women surveyed, followed by affordable health care, at 47 percent, The Post’s Jonathan Capehart reported in September. Other major concerns included racism and hate crimes, housing cost and gun violence, voting rights and civil rights.
Capehart reported also that African American women still overwhelmingly support the Democratic party, by 73 percent, but that was a drop from 85 percent in 2016 and 74 percent in 2017, and 23.6 percent “identiﬁed as Independents or non-afﬁliated.” With regards to women aged 25-35, “only 45% agreed that the Democrats best represented their interest(s), with nearly ½ indicating no party represents them.” Another Post reporter, Eugene Scott, cited an October study by GenForward and the University of Chicago showing that, among younger voters, 21 percent supported “someone else,” 19 percent, Biden and 18 percent Sanders.
Perhaps equally troubling for the candidates, the Pew Research Center reported that African American turnout declined in 2016 for the ﬁrst time in 20 years, to 59.6 percent, from 66 percent in 2012. “This was even the case for black millennials,” Scott said. “While the overall millennial voter turnout rate increased in 2016, the number of black millennials who turned out to vote dropped. In 2016, about half — 50.6 percent — of black millennials turned out to vote. The number was 55 percent in 2012.”
It was probably such statistics that prompted Antjuan Seawright, a 34year-old Democratic strategist in South Carolina, to tell The Fix: “We’ve got to start treating younger African American voters like we’re in a true relationship with them, which means establishing trust, ongoing communications and also spending time with them.”
Regardless of whether a white or other candidate wins the nomination, African Americans have a lot at stake in the 2020 election. The Post’s Lilliana Mason wrote earlier this month that “the racial divide in U.S. politics is organized around party lines. Americans can base their votes on whether they believe that systemic racism exists. Those who do not believe it does, or those who believe white Americans are threatened are able to act on their beliefs by voting for the Republican Party. The result is that U.S. electoral institutions are riven by a ﬁght over American identity and the relative humanity of America’s citizens.”
Who wins will matter a lot.