Joe Biden’s history-making pick of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate marked a turning point in his outreach to Black voters after missteps that had worried some supporters, prominent African American activists and donors told USA TODAY this week.
Black leaders predicted the selection would generate new excitement for the ticket, bolstering Biden’s bid to unseat President Donald Trump.
“I think Senator Harris provides that bump in terms of enthusiasm, which is critical for securing the Black vote,” said Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC, whose mission is to help elect Black candidates up and down the ballot.
Democratic activists had been urging Biden for months to step up his courtship of Black voters, who are crucial to his chances of prevailing in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and of scoring upset victories in traditionally Republican states like Texas and Georgia.
As Biden introduced Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, during their first joint appearance Wednesday, he said he hoped the decision would inspire girls across the country “especially little Black and brown girls who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities.”
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Harris, D-Calif., would be the country’s first Black woman vice president if their ticket wins on Nov. 3.
Ariel Singleton, a 25-year-old organizer for Georgia STAND-UP, which is helping to register people to vote, said she feels a connection to Harris, who was a member of her sorority and is a graduate of Howard University, one of the country’s historically black colleges and universities.
“It hits home. It looks like me. It feels like me,’’ she said. “It feels like it’s right there in my ballpark.’’
The stakes for Biden in reinforcing his support with Black voters are huge. A Pew Research Center poll this week found Biden leading Trump with voters overall, 53%-45%, with a massive 89%-8% lead with Black voters. White voters preferred Trump by 54%-45%.
But being the preferred candidate of Black voters isn’t enough. To win, Biden will need to inspire supporters to cast ballots in an election in which the coronavirus pandemic has added to uncertainties about turnout.
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LaTosha Brown, founder of Black Voters Matter, said women voters, particularly Black women, have been galvanized by Harris.
“Part of why people are excited, including myself, is that we know historically what this means for us, that it’s not just about excitement about the candidate. It’s also excitement about the possibilities when we see democracy,” Brown said. “Anytime that you see the ceiling break, you see more light getting through.”
‘You brought me back’
On Thursday, when Biden formally accepts the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s virtual convention, he’ll do so six months after a primary victory in South Carolina in which he declared to voters there: “You brought me back.”
Overwhelming support from Black voters in the state rescued his candidacy after a trifecta of losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
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The South Carolina win catapulted Biden to a series of victories in other primary states, enabling him to defeat Sen. Bernie Sanders, the early Democratic frontrunner.
Biden’s role as the former vice president to President Barack Obama, the first Black president, earned him a level of trust with African American voters, particularly older Black voters.
But Biden, 77, has struggled to build the same level of support with younger Black voters, many of whom hold more progressive views than he does.
Biden has also made some verbal gaffes that Trump and his allies have highlighted to argue that the former vice president is taking Black voters for granted.
For example, Biden told radio host Charlamagne tha God in a testy interview in May that people on the fence about whether to vote for him or Trump “ain’t Black.” He later apologized.
“I should not have been so cavalier. I’ve never, never, ever taken the African-American community for granted,” Biden said.
Last week, Biden stirred criticism when he was asked by a Black TV reporter if he would be willing to take a cognitive test amid ongoing attacks from Trump about his fitness. Biden pushed back by saying, “That’s like saying you, before you got on this program, you take a test where you’re taking cocaine or not … Are you a junkie?”
Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, said Biden’s blunder highlighted a concern that he had not demonstrated enough of “a level of growth or learning” from the Charlamagne interview.
She noted that Trump has alienated many Black voters with policies such as overturning Obama-era fair housing rules and incendiary comments such as saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of clashes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. But Gillespie, author of “Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope,” said Trump’s record does not give Biden a “free pass to say and do anything he wants on race.”
“Vice President Biden shouldn’t rest on his laurels just because there is a huge perceptual advantage that he has over Donald Trump with respect to civil rights issue,” Gillespie said.
It was never a given that Biden would choose a woman of color for his running mate, although he had pledged to pick a woman. In addition to Harris, his list of finalists included white women such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., and women of color including former national security adviser Susan Rice and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.
Media reports that spilled out of Biden’s vice presidential selection process sparked concerns among Black supporters of the Democratic candidate.
Reports had emerged that some Biden advisers were wary of Harris, concerned that she might be too “ambitious” and more focused on furthering her own presidential ambitions than on promoting Biden’s agenda.
According to POLITICO, former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Biden’s vice presidential search committee, had criticized Harris for her clash with the former vice president at the first Democratic debate over his civil rights record. Dodd reportedly said: “She laughed and said, ‘that’s politics.’ She had no remorse.”
Responding to those reports, more than 100 Black male leaders, including activists, preachers, rappers and celebrities, in an open letter Monday said the urgency for Biden to choose a Black woman had gone from something that should happen to an imperative.
“Failing to select a Black woman in 2020 means you will lose the election,” said the letter, signed by Black leaders including Rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, radio host Charlamagne and political commentator Van Jones.
“Why does Senator Kamala Harris have to show remorse for questioning Biden’s previous stance on integrated busing during a democratic primary debate?” the letter asked.
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The advocacy group She the People had also warned the Biden campaign of concerns. In July, the group made public a memo criticizing Biden’s outreach to women of color after a series of listening sessions with politicians and activists.
After Biden’s selection of Harris, Aimee Allison, founder and president of the group, said she is no longer hearing the reservations and criticisms from women of color she had previously been hearing.
Allison said the pick of Harris would enable the campaign to better connect with voters of color at a time when the country is facing a reckoning over race after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
“She could talk about all these things, and she does it fluently, and that’s really what’s needed to heal and unite people who are suffering under Trump,” Allison said.
Brown, the Black Voters Matter founder who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the primary, said Black voters are now ready to coalesce around the Democratic ticket.
“If this ticket continues to respond to us, as it has responded by picking Kamala, and respond to our needs, and literally we start seeing ourselves in the policies, then what you’re going to see is a remarkable turnout,” Brown said.
Nykidra Robinson, founder of Baltimore-based Black Girls Vote, said Biden’s commitment to Black women shouldn’t stop at selecting Harris as his running mate.
If Biden is elected, Robinson said she will be watching to see if the Biden administration advocates for issues important to Black women such as pay equity, healthcare access, and more representation in positions of political power.
“We put his back up against the wall,” Robinson said. “This shows we (Black women) are being respected and honored the way we should.”
Mistakes of 2016
Fewer than 80,000 votes delivered Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Trump in 2016, ushering him to victory. Lower-than-expected turnout among Black voters hurt Hillary Clinton in all three states, prompting soul searching at the highest levels of the Democratic party.
“The drop in black turnout (in 2016) was critical to the defeat in each of those three states, which were super close,” said Steve Phillips, host of “Democracy in Color” political podcast.
Phillips is also the author of the 2016 book “Brown is The New White,” which argues that the Democratic party has erred by focusing too much on winning back white working-class voters who now form the core of Trump’s base and not enough on building enthusiasm with voters of color. He says the strategy has cost the party opportunities in states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor, said he thought the pick of Harris would help spark enthusiasm. Reports that Whitmer had been interviewed by Biden in the final run-up to the decision had led to speculation that he might turn to her to reinforce his support with Midwestern swing voters.
Phillips said he believes the Biden campaign needs to invest more resources in outreach to Black voters in cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit and also in states like Georgia, which Democrats have a chance of flipping in November.
James, who noted that Black women are the country’s leading voting demographic, said the Harris pick could have an impact beyond those voters.
“It’s not just about (Black women) voting but also about them bringing their children, their husbands, their parents, their communities with them to the polls, and they do that through volunteering,” James said.
Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip who gave Biden a campaign-saving endorsement ahead of the South Carolina primary, said the Democratic campaign in 2016 was guilty of taking Black voters for granted, despite warnings from many in the party.
But Clyburn said choosing Harris was a great start to keeping Black voters engaged.
“I think putting Harris on this ticket, I just think that was something that will be a significant benefit to the Democratic ticket, going into the fall election,” he said.
The South Carolina congressman warned that outreach can’t stop there. He said that the campaign is going to need to enlist powerful surrogates and advertise heavily on Black-owned media.
“We’ve got to run a campaign in the Black community to get the black community engaged and keep them engaged,” Clyburn said.
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Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry and Nicquel Terry Ellis