Sorry, Bernie. You Can't Win the Democratic Nomination Without Loyal Black Voters

WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders was well on his way to winning the Democratic Party nomination … and then black voters had their turn.

It began with Joe Biden’s decisive victory in the South Carolina primary, where a strong turnout by a predominantly black electorate performed life support on Biden’s flatlining campaign. The pattern continued on March 3rd, Super Tuesday, when Biden swept the southern primary states including Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. He even eked out a victory in Texas thanks in part to widespread support from black voters there. 

And then on Tuesday, Super Tuesday 2.0, Biden ran roughshod over Sanders with wins in Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi. Yet again, he trounced Sanders among older black voters and collected most of the delegates up for grabs, moving that much closer to the nomination.

“African American voters literally put Joe Biden on their back and carried him over the goal line,” says Ace Smith, a Democratic political consultant who worked for Sen. Kamala Harris’s presidential run. “Without their support, he doesn’t win. It’s just that simple.”

Biden’s remarkable turnaround makes this much clear: The path to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination runs through African American voters. “I love Iowa and New Hampshire, but they’re not bellwethers anywhere,” says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns. “People talk about the history of Iowa and New Hampshire, but that history is almost meaningless when confronted with the history that’s being made with the changes happening demographically in America.”

We saw this in 2008. Massive turnout by African American voters delivered Barack Obama the South Carolina primary when his campaign badly needed a jolt, delivered other key primary victories en route to the nomination, and later helped deliver the presidency itself.

We saw it in 2016. Hillary Clinton pulled away from Sanders in the nomination fight with decisive wins in nearly every Southern state in the union. And it’s possible that if black turnout had not sagged in that year’s general election, Clinton might be the president. (Clinton didn’t help her cause by not campaigning as vigorously as she could have — and as Obama did — in cities and states with disproportionately more black voters.)

It is now the case as Joe Biden pulls away from Bernie Sanders with a run of primary victories fueled in large part by a surge in support among black voters. No two people share the same reasons for supporting a candidate, but in interviews with Rolling Stone, black voters say they appreciate Biden’s service as Obama’s vice president. Some say they see him as someone who can bring an end to the chaos and confusion emanating from the White House, someone who can restore some semblance of normalcy and dignity to the office of president.

“I feel like there will be a sense of normalcy again,” Anthony Sampson, a resident of Ridgeville, South Carolina, said on the eve of that state’s primary election. “We can get back to normal. And maybe get some stuff done in the Senate.” Sampson also said he thought Biden’s experience as a senator could help him as president get legislation through Congress. “You’re going to have to deal with the establishment,” he said. 

Leo Frazier, who was sitting next to Sampson at a Biden rally and lives in Clarendon County, South Carolina, said this election was not the time to pick a nominee proposing radical policies and calling for a political revolution. “Our democracy is in a very fragile place,” Frazier said.

In the 2020 campaign, there was no other candidate apart from Biden who enjoyed strong support among the party’s black voters (which is to say, the vast majority of all black voters). To take one example, a national poll published last November showed Buttigieg and Warren with a combined 14 percent of support among black voters.

For Bernie Sanders, his path to the nomination has proved to be no path at all. He bet that a “revolution” created by galvanizing young voters, especially young voters of color, while bringing new voters off the sidelines would propel him to the nomination. “The key to this election,” Sanders said last year, “is can we get millions of young people who have never voted before into the political process, many working people who understand that Trump is a fraud, can we get them voting?”

That’s not to say Sanders ignored older black voters — far from it. After conceding that his 2016 campaign was “too white,” he retooled to focus less on him and more on the people who would benefit from his policies. He traveled the South and met with underrepresented communities. He hired more diverse staff members. His campaign launched a pioneering organizing program on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities. He sought to shift the focus away from his well-attended rallies and more toward the working people and people of color whom he hoped would support his campaign. He adopted the motto “Not me. Us.”

It didn’t work. Faced with skepticism about why he’d spent most of his political career as an independent and not a Democrat, or why he wanted to replace Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, Sanders struggled throughout the campaign to win over the party’s most loyal voters. In recent days, he bowed to this reality when he scrapped a planned speech on race in Mississippi and instead added more campaign events in Michigan, a state he won in 2016.

Four years later, Sanders would lose every county in Michigan. Black voters in the state would break decisively for Biden, as they have in other primary states. Pollster Cornell Belcher says Biden’s results in 2020 aren’t a fluke; they’re a preview of the future. “The demographic changes that are reshaping American politics more broadly over the next decade — they’re happening right now in the Democratic primary,” Belcher says. “The strength and power of minority voters to shape politics is happening right now in the Democratic primary in a way that you’re going to continue to see across the country as we become a minority-majority population.”

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