Black voters to the rescue 

African-American voters proved they were ready to lead in narrowing the field for 2020

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris flank former Vice President Joe Biden at the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit. (Photos by Andrew Roth)
U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris flank former Vice President Joe Biden at the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit. (Photos by Andrew Roth)

When senior campaign advisor Symone Sanders threw herself at a vegan protester who disrupted Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday victory speech, it was a fitting metaphor for the 2020 presidential campaign.

Once again, an African-American saved a Democratic presidential nominee in peril.

It was particularly fitting that it was an African-American woman, part of a group representing the most loyal and in many ways the most practical electoral base for Democrats.

For months, a group of diverse candidates had been competing in various levels of competency for the 2020 Democratic nomination, with a few solid front-runners competing against a group of promising newcomers.

In the beginning, there seemed to be something for everybody — a Barack Obama doppelgänger in Cory Booker, a dynamic female African-Indian American in Kamala Harris, an Hispanic-American with solid political credentials in Julián Castro, an intriguing Asian-American in Andrew Yang and a powerful progressive woman in Elizabeth Warren. 

After the South Carolina primary in mid-February, all of these candidates were pretty much wiped out by a Biden march through the South that was as impressive as General Grant defeating Confederate troops during the Civil war. 

According to most polls, Biden received two-thirds of the black vote in South Carolina, out-matching all of his supposed rivals. 

He beat Bernie Sanders, his closest competitor, by more than 30 points. He was expected to win, but the size of his victory proved that African-American voters were ready to lead the way by narrowing the field.

Soon, most of the Democratic primary candidates dropped out or suspended their campaigns, leaving Biden as the presumptive nominee. 

Bernie Sanders has continued his dogged campaign, but his often cited claim to being the only candidate who could incite the kind of excitement necessary to spark a massive turnout from voters — in particular younger African-American voters — never materialized during this primary election season. 

Sanders’ weaknesses with black voters is plaguing him, just as it did in 2016. A March opinion piece in The Nation magazine by Elie Mystal noted that many black voters went for Biden because they weren’t confident that white progressives would unite in time to defeat Trump in November. 

“My read of the South Carolina vote is that black people know exactly what they’re doing, and why. Joe Biden is the indictment older black folks have issued against white America. His support is buttressed by chunks of the black community who have determined that most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing” wrote Mystal. 

Biden’s strong ties to the African-American voting electorate is rooted in the collective memory of black grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts who still remember the ecstasy of being alive in 2008 when America elected its first black president. The man known affectionately as “Joe” was always considered a loyal soldier and effective partner in an administration that needed to have a white man on the ticket to legitimize Barack Obama’s position in a country that still wasn’t totally comfortable with a black man in charge. 

Biden was the white guy who vouched for the first black president and more importantly who never seemed to undercut or diminish Obama’s position during eight years of playing second fiddle. Black America noticed.

I’ve always believed Biden would be the eventual Democratic nominee, not so much because I think he’s the best candidate Democrats could offer, but because I think an America that elected Trump because he was an old white guy with a familiar name — despite his failings — could just as easily go for a more liberal alternative. That’s particularly true after four years of seeing how the former reality TV star has performed under the pressure of holding the most important job in the nation.

Biden is clearly the choice of older African-American voters who have essentially taken over the Democractic primary process. Whether he can win in a general election remains to be seen. The current coronavirus crisis seems to have highlighted Trump’s incompetence. Biden could be an appealing alternative, especially if his eventual choice for vice-president reassures voters that his age and all-too-frequent gaffes could be mitigated by the selection of an acceptable younger successor. 

Seeing how black voters resuscitated his campaign, he might consider an African-American woman. But he only made the commitment to pick a woman during one of the last primary debates. He did appear to promise to appoint a black woman to the U.S. Supreme court, which suggests he knows there is a debt due to a vital part of his constituency. 

This Democratic primary process has been confusing. Do Democrats need an “electable” or inspirational candidate to defeat Trump? The Party had a hard time finding someone who could check all the boxes.

Someone needed to step up and take charge and it appears black voters were the ones with guts to do it. Black voters made the decision to get things settled once and for all. 

Biden, and the Democrats, should thank them.