What Joe Biden understood about Black voters that Bernie Sanders didn’t

OPINION: "Black support of Biden is not blind worship of the former vice president or lack of information as some have suggested. Black voters are strategically weighing their odds."

(Getty Images)

This week thousands of Americans went to the polls in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois.
Those results combined with the previous super Tuesday contests have by all accounts
solidified Vice President Joe Biden as the front runner and presumed winner of the Democratic party primary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters continue to argue that it is too early to count out their candidate and we must wait for even more diverse states to weigh in. Unfortunately, Sanders and his supporters may need to apply the same fervor they directed at Sen. Elizabeth Warren after the South Carolina primary and encourage their candidate to suspend his campaign.

Let’s put Biden’s wins in some context. As the old folks used to say, Biden beat Sanders like he stole somethin! Biden has run the tables these past few primaries winning the majority of delegates in Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Michigan (to name just a few).

Bernie 2020 seems to be losing some of the support he had in 2016. When looking at
the returns, it appears that some (if not many) of the 2016 votes for Sanders may have
actually just been votes against Hillary Clinton.

Sanders has been courting younger voters and Latinx voters for the past four
years, but his apparent unwillingness to substantially reach out to Black voters, particularly Black primary voters (a.k.a older Black voters) proves to be his Achilles heel yet again.

“Joe Knows Us”

Yes, Sanders did receive an endorsement from Jesse Jackson before the Michigan
primary, but we must remember that a Jackson endorsement is not the equivalent of a
James Clyburn endorsement.

A Clyburn endorsement catapulted Biden to success on Super Tuesday. And Biden’s South Carolina surge has turned into a deluge of support from establishment Democrats, but more importantly, rank and file Democratic voters.

There are a few keys differences between James Clyburn and Jesse Jackson endorsements that Sanders’ folks should have realized.

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – FEBRUARY 29: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) (L), speaks on stage after declaring victory in the South Carolina presidential primary on February 29, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina is the first-in-the-south primary and the fourth state in the presidential nominating process. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

CHICAGO, IL – MARCH 12: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) greets Rev. Jesse Jackson following an interview at Operation Rainbow Push on March 12, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Residents in Illinois go to the polls on March 15 for their state’s primary. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

First, James Clyburn is currently one of the highest-ranking congressmen in South Carolina and has bargaining chips throughout his state. Jesse Jackson had no direct ties to Michigan beyond winning the primary there in 1988 and surprised folks by his ability to do
so.

Second, Clyburn was able to explain to South Carolina voters that “Joe knows us.”  Jackson, on the other hand, could only promise Black voters in Michigan that Sanders
would do the right thing if and when given the opportunity.

Clearly for Black Michiganders, a gaffe-prone bird in hand (Biden) is better than an elected official of 30+ years (who is relatively unknown to the Black community), in the bush.

Obama Loyalty Matters

I’ve been traveling to the U.S. South quite a bit as of late and cannot begin to count
the number of establishments and homes who have added a framed photograph of former President Barack Obama to their wall next to the pantheon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ at the last supper, and Malcolm X (or JFK depending on where you are). Biden’s connection (and loyalty) to Barack Obama still matters. His solid identification as a Democrat still matters, and his role as “the establishment” does matter to many.

Dr. Charles Hamilton, one of the godfathers of political science who laid the foundation for much of our analysis of Black politics, argues that Black voters will sometimes stay in
the protectionist phase (to protect the gains they have already made) as opposed to the
advancement phase (risking those gains for something that may be closer to their ideal
but is not guaranteed) when assessing candidates and issues pertaining to their lives.

There is a belief among many Black voters that Biden will protect what they have. Will
he radically change the system? No. However, many voters are not looking for radical
change because of their keen awareness of the limitations of this nation and the very
real racist implications of the (re)allocation of resources.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 12: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the Medal of Freedom to Vice-President Joe Biden during an event in the State Dinning room of the White House, January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

For some, Bernie’s promises do not ring true and are not perceived as realistic. His
proposals may advance people in the long run, but many voters are more interested in
holding onto what they have now and are not willing to put their hard-earned eggs in
a basket that may not result in any new benefits. (leaving them with less than what
they started with.)

Black support of Biden is not blind worship of the former vice president or lack of
information as some have suggested. Black voters are strategically weighing their odds
and many are choosing who they think is palatable not only for themselves but also their
communities.  They are making a strategic calculus of the voting behaviors of whites and others who tend not to factor in Black needs and opinions when making their voting
decisions.

When looking at country-level data of Black voters in places like Florida, Missouri,
Arizona, and Michigan, it is clear that Sanders must change his strategy if he hopes to
garner future support among Black voters in the remaining states.

It is not enough for Sanders to acknowledge and promote policies that could specifically
assist Black groups across the nation. He must work to directly address these groups
and work for the vote…something that has yet to happen. It was actually something that
did not happen over the course of four years since he lost the Democratic primary in
2016.

Optics matter, as do results. Sanders gamble did not pay off. Skipping heavy campaigning in Mississippi may have been advantageous from a campaign strategy perspective, but his absence in the state (and at Selma) was a signal to many that Bernie was attempting a path to the nomination by ignoring much of the backbone of the Democratic Party.

And the last time I checked it is virtually impossible to stand tall and fight if you are missing your spine.


Christina Greer is the politics editor at theGrio, an associate professor of political
science at Fordham University, and the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, immigration, and the pursuit of the American Dream.”

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