The annals of Democratic presidential primaries are littered with white liberals who couldn’t win over black voters and lost the nomination because of it.
This year’s contestants are all too aware of that history — from Gary Hart in 1984 to Bill Bradley in 2000 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 — and they’re going out of their way to avoid joining their ranks.
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Their efforts are scrambling the usual early primary state-centric rhythms of the presidential campaign, instead bringing candidates to other states with large black populations. Kirsten Gillibrand became the first non-Texan 2020 candidate to visit the state when she spoke with students at historically black Paul Quinn College in Dallas. Elizabeth Warren will soon make a campaign swing through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, where the Democratic vote is heavily black. And Warren and Amy Klobuchar have already made stops in Atlanta and its suburbs, where Klobuchar held a voting-rights roundtable with local leaders and Warren spoke at a high school.
The early, persistent attention to African-American voters stands in sharp contrast to past campaigns, black leaders say, borne out of recognition of the powerful role those voters will play choosing the nominee — and fierce competition for those votes in a field that includes two black senators, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
“There used to be this notion that you could spend six weeks or four weeks or two weeks — do barbershops and churches, black radio — and that was kind of the extent of the effort,” said former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “I think that anybody that wants to be president has certainly learned that black voters are just in a different space now.”
“You’re now having to go deeper,” Reed continued. “And you’re also having to spend more physical time. Black communities are beginning to have the kind of attention, candidly, that the white community in places in Iowa and New Hampshire have enjoyed throughout time.”
The new push has made kingmakers of high-profile black leaders. Stacey Abrams, Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee in Georgia last year, has already met with Booker, Harris, Warren, Klobuchar, and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to a Democrat with knowledge of the meetings. More meetings with declared and anticipated presidential candidates are expected.
Booker and Harris, who have been cultivating the African-American community for years, have done the most work in recent months to connect with community leaders and voters across the country — hiring top staffers, headlining big events and appearing on prominent shows. Harris alone has sat for interviews with The Root, The Grio, Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in Nevada, “The Breakfast Club,” “Tom Joyner Morning Show” and Power Rising in New Orleans.
But the others have been trying to close the gap, recognizing that past candidates who failed to appeal to black voters — or were too slow to start — were doomed.
In the 1984 race, Hart averaged just 7 percent of the black vote in the six primaries where large numbers of African-Americans voted, compared with Walter Mondale’s 25 percent and Jesse Jackson’s 66 percent, according to contemporary reports. In critical South Carolina in 2016, Sanders was blown away, registering only 14 of the black vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 86 percent, exit polls showed.
Sanders is trying to land new footholds in the black community after the stumble.
Along with Booker, Sanders traveled last weekend to Selma, Alabama, in remembrance of the 1965 civil rights march there. Sanders has added significant diversity to the upper echelons of his 2020 campaign, including top aides and co-chairs.
And Sanders’ first two official 2020 events — in Chicago and Brooklyn — seemed largely aimed at black voters and activists, introducing personal stories about the Vermont senator’s civil rights activism.
Sanders has been talking about racial disparities, including the wealth gap between black and white Americans.
“The infant mortality rate in black communities is more than double the rate for white communities,” Sanders said, a statistic that’s been getting traction in the remarks of other candidates. “And the death rates from cancer and almost every disease is far higher for blacks.”
Others are engaging in questions about housing policy, voting rights and minimum wages, but also reparations for the descendants of slavery — which former President Barack Obama opposed.
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said the new early focus is “shaking up the apple cart a little bit —particularly with your more conventional cabal of consultants who typically just want to spend money at the last minute with minority voters for (get out the vote) operations.”
“That shit just doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “You cannot get the performative turnout among voters of color without putting resources there and treating them like persuasion targets. The campaign that does that and builds a real communications plan and retail politics plan there I think will see some success.”
During one of Warren’s South Carolina stops, Warren went in studio with the Big DM 101 — where affordable housing was a topic of conversation. She lunched with African-American Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) last week, according to a person familiar with the meeting, and Warren has held dozens of meetings and phone calls with black leaders in Washington and around the country.
Warren’s Senate office has had black staffers in major roles, and she gave the keynote address at the Morgan State Convention in December, and the National Action Network conference in November. She’ll again join many of her 2020 rivals at the group’s event next month.
Warren talks often about racial inequality, specifically prioritizing efforts to address government-sanctioned discrimination in housing — an embrace of race-conscious policies that has gained in prominence among the 2020 candidates.
Julian Castro, at St. Anselm College’s “Politics and Eggs” forum in New Hampshire, pledged to make housing a top issue, suggesting the subject wasn’t even on the radar of presidential campaigns in debates over the last three to four decades.
From the onset of her presidential exploration, Gillibrand pledged to take on institutional racism — naming it as a top issue during her announcement to Stephen Colbert.
In South Carolina, Klobuchar held a private roundtable luncheon with local leaders from the black community, while Gillibrand brunched with women leaders, met with a group of predominantly black small businesses at a black women owned restaurant and donned sneakers and a ball gown for the Urban League for the Upstate Black Tie and Sneakers Awards Gala.
Gillibrand spoke at three churches in North Charleston and met with and attended events hosted by Jennifer Clyburn-Reed, daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn; Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin, who introduced her at Northeast Richland Democrats meeting; and the Rev. Byron Benton of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
“It is not just the people that you see on television, the big national leaders, but what we’re finding is most impactful and more credible in the state particularly for young people are a lot of leaders who you don’t see on television,” Belcher said. “In some cases, it was the more localized figures like the radio DJ who does a morning show.”
“That’s a voice they listen to,” Belcher continued. “So, it’s the new sort of leadership model that these campaigns need to understand it they want to reach people of color, particularly people of color.”