Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Can Joe Biden “Keep Hope Alive”?: Reflections From Barack Obama’s and Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Primary Campaigns

Today will be a day of reckoning for Joe Biden.  Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic primary revived Biden’s presidential candidacy, and after this Super Tuesday’s primaries, he will find out if it can thrive again.  Although Biden was long the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination, he finished far behind Bernie Sanders in the first three nomination contests—the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and the Nevada caucuses.  Sanders also recently took the lead in national polls and in many state polls, and many people essentially wrote off Biden’s candidacy.  But Biden’s resounding victory in South Carolina—where he bested Sanders by 28.5 points and won all 46 counties—brought back what the media portrayed as a dying campaign.   Biden now has momentum going into today’s primaries, where 14 more states will vote on the Democratic nominee for President.

Biden can especially thank one group of voters for his revival: African Americans.  Black voters comprised almost two-thirds of Democrats who voted in the South Carolina primary.  According to exits polls, 61 percent of Black voters choose Biden, compared to only 17 percent who voted for Sanders [1].  Throughout the campaign, Biden has led national polls of Black voters.  Of course, African Americans are not a monolith, and there are nuances to Biden’s Black support.  For example, he fares best with older Black voters; younger voters of all racial backgrounds prefer Sanders [2].  But Biden has openly touted African Americans as his core constituency, and he is relying heavily on the Black vote to carry him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Not even Barack Obama depended as much on Black voters to win the nomination.  In 2008, Obama’s initial support came largely from White voters.  Early in the 2008 Democratic nomination season, Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by a large margin among Black and White voters.  Obama did not obtain a significant percentage of the Black vote until he proved he could win over White voters in Iowa.  This propelled him to victories in South Carolina, Georgia, and other states with proportionately large Black populations.  Eventually, Obama garnered much Black support, and as the prospect of the first Black President rose and excited voters, his candidacy also drove up Black voter turnout.  But Obama did not start out with much support from Black voters: he had to earn it.

Conversely, Biden led comfortably among Black voters at the very start of his campaign.  He was a well-known political entity in Black communities, and his long history working with prominent Black politicians—particularly his loyal service as Obama’s Vice President—gave him a footing that Obama did not have.  Many people also felt that Biden, as an established White male politician with a reputation for decency, was the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump.  Unlike Obama, Biden relied on Black voters as his base from the outset. 

Even after Obama began winning over Black voters in 2008, he was not just reliant on the Black vote.  Although he won Southern states with the highest percentages of Black voters, some of Obama’s largest margins of victory came in very White states: Maine, Idaho, Alaska, Vermont, and Nebraska.  Additionally, Hillary Clinton won Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California—states that have significant proportions of Black voters, although less than the Southern states [3].  Clinton also prevailed in states such as Arizona and New Mexico, which have small Black populations but large Latina/o populations.  But Obama’s Democratic primary victories came not just states with the highest percentages of African Americans, but also in some of those with the highest percentages of White Americans [4]. 

Like Obama in 2008, Biden’s chances look good in Southern states with large proportions of Black voters.  But with Sanders’s recent rise, Biden’s prospects in other states are poorer.  Biden’s Democratic primary electoral map may actually wind up looking less like Obama’s and more like the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful run in 1988.  Jackson’s bid is remembered for his captivating “Keep Hope Alive” speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.  But he was also a solid contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He won Democratic primaries in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, and Delaware.  Nevertheless, Jackson finished second to Michael Dukakis for the 1988 nomination, because Dukakis won many states with higher percentages of White voters [5].  Jackson thus became the last Democratic primary candidate who won the party’s Black vote but not its nomination [6].

Ironically, Biden was one of Jackson’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.  Now, Biden’s 2020 campaign could suffer the same fate as Jackson’s did in 1988.  Current polling suggests that Biden could win the Black vote nationally but still lose the nomination to Bernie Sanders, due to the latter’s support from White and Latina/o voters.  Biden’s campaign is trying increase support from White voters.  On the eve of Super Tuesday, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke all endorsed Biden and encouraged their mostly White supporters to vote for him [7].  Biden may thus try to rebuild the Obama coalition, but he would have to do it backwards—starting with Black voters.

But there is also no guarantee that African Americans will continue to vote for Biden in the same numbers they did in South Carolina.  Multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg did not compete in South Carolina but will be competing in Super Tuesday states.  Bloomberg has targeted Black voters in those states and could reduce Biden’s share of the Black vote.  Biden has limited resources the Super Tuesday states, and he has not campaigned in them as much.  He will also not get the same boost from Representative James Clyburn’s endorsement, which carried huge weight in South Carolina.

Nevertheless, even beyond winning specific states, the Biden campaign’s overall strategy is heavily reliant on Black voters in other ways.  Delegates to the Democratic National Convention are awarded not only by statewide victories, but also by victories in Congressional districts within each state.  Rather than just focusing on winning entire states, Biden’s campaign is targeting predominantly Black Congressional districts.  In this way, Biden will try to win as many delegates as possible on the strength of his support from Black voters, even if these voters are in relatively White states.

If Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination, it will be because Black voters allowed him to “keep hope alive.”  Throughout the Democratic primary, Black voters as a whole have continued to support him over other candidates, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker [8].  Biden has highlighted his long record of working for Black communities [9], and he has promised that he will not take the Black vote for granted.  Although he has made some bad policy choices [10], along with some verbal gaffes, many Black voters have remained solidly behind Biden.  The question now is whether this will continue.  We will find out soon, beginning tonight. 


[1]  Biden also prevailed over Sanders for the White vote in South Carolina, 33 percent to 23 percent.  However, Sanders leads nationally among White voters.

[2]  Among Black voters over 65, Biden beat Sanders 78 percent to 9 percent.  But among Black voters under 30, Sanders won 38 percent, compared to 36 percent for Biden.

[3]  Clinton won some Southern states: Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

[4] Why did Obama win some of the very Whitest states?  There are different explanations: for example, Obama won every state with caucuses, where enthusiastic organizers can have a larger impact, and these included several of the Whitest states.  But racism may have also played a subtle role.  Perhaps if the percentage of White voters is very high, the prospect of electing a Black candidate did not feel as threatening.  It is known that “White flight” does not begin in a neighborhood until about 8 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Black.  Obama may have beaten Clinton in states where: 1. The percentage of Black people itself was high enough to carry him to victory; or 2. The percentage of White people was high enough that they could feel comfortable voting for a non-threatening, “articulate” Black candidate.

[5]  Besides Southern states, Jackson did prevail in the Michigan and Alaska Democratic contests.  The latter could make for an interesting trivia question, because Obama also won in Alaska. 

[6]  Although his platform raised a number of important economic and social issues, White voters saw Jackson mainly as a candidate for pushing Black issues and interests.  America was less also diverse in 1988, and because of Jackson’s history of fighting for civil rights, some White people may have felt threatened by him.

[7]  However, Biden’s explicit appeals to Black voters, such as his commitment to appointing a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, could further turn off moderate and conservative White Democrats.  Biden’s White male privilege will allow him to get away with explicit appeals to Black voters more than Obama or Jackson could, but this could still be an issue for Biden.

[8]  Like Obama’s 2008 campaign, Biden’s 2020 bid illustrates that Black voters do not simply line up and vote for Black candidates.  Their voting choices are much more nuanced.

[9]  Many commentators do not realize that over 20 percent of Delaware’s population is BlackWilmington, Delaware’s largest city and Biden’s home, is a majority Black city and had an even greater percentage of Black residents during Biden’s time as a Senator.  Thus, Biden has spent significant time campaigning for Black votes and working for Black communities for five decades.

[10]  The media has also misconstrued Biden’s positions on some issues, most notably busing.  See Vinay Harpalani, “Serving Two Masters” Revisited: Derrick Bell, Joe Biden, and the Paradox of Busing, Race and the Law Prof Blog, July 4, 2019.


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