On Monday, the New York Times published an encouraging story illustrating how minority voters assessing the Democratic primary field think about the issues and candidates. Some of the constituents with whom reporter Astead Herndon spoke confessed with a palpable hint of self-consciousness that their vote would be based on the interests they shared with their preferred candidate and not on racial or ethnic solidarity.
“Black Voters to Black Candidates: Representation Is Not Enough,” the Times headline read. Though by “representation” they do not mean “representation”—at least, not in the conventional republican sense. But the center-left definition of “representation,” which is roughly equivalent to “depiction,” makes an enigma out of Democratic voters of minority extraction. For some poor-performing Democratic presidential candidates, the blurring of the lines separating identity-based voting blocs into hard and fast camps is not a welcome development but a problem to be fixed.
For example, a Monday dispatch in Politico exposed the disquiet within Democratic ranks over their voters’ conspicuous failure to think and behave in predictable patterns based on their accidents of birth—a condition we would call stereotyping in any other context. The report notes with surprise how the Democratic nominating contest, which has for months been characterized by ideological debates, “is being re-framed around questions of race and identity.” Politico notes that Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and former HUD Sec. Julian Castro (polling at 4 percent, 1.3 percent, and 1 percent nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics average) “have been telegraphing for weeks that they would take their campaigns in a more race-conscious direction.”
The item focuses on how these and other candidates intend to appeal to African-American voters by narrowcasting their message and tailoring their policies to appeal to the relevant demographics, but no one should mistake this for a positive campaign. The article makes it plain that this strategy is designed to undercut acute threats to their electoral success, threats such as (particularly, in fact) South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s surging support in Iowa. But confessing that Buttigieg is their prime target gives away the game. As a candidate with an already anemic appeal among black Democrats, focusing on Buttigieg’s lack of African-American support is intended to convince the affluent, educated, white liberals who make up the mayor’s base to rethink their affinities.
Of course, the source of their anxiety among lower-tier Democratic presidential hopefuls is not Donald Trump (as the Politico article suggests) but Joe Biden and his stable support among black primary voters. An average of NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys over the course of 2019 found that, while Biden holds an overall lead among Democrats at 29 percent, he has the support of a full 50 percent of black voters. At 12 percent among African Americans, Elizabeth Warren manages only a distant second place.
Race is only one factor relevant to Biden’s strength in the polls. Fifty-seven percent of black Democratic primary voters are over 50—a core element of Biden’s base—whereas younger African-American voters make up a smaller proportion of the Democratic vote due to the party’s overall strength among all voters between the ages of 18 to 34. There’s an ideological component to this disparity, too. Sixty-one percent of black Democrats describe themselves as moderate or conservative. That’s a dramatic divergence from the Democratic Party as a whole, only 45 percent of which does not describe themselves as “liberal.”
Biden is not above the occasional pander, but he has steadfastly refused to adopt the mantle “woke.” His stubborn refusal to divide up the Democratic electorate and pit its constituent parts against one another is fueling a revolt even within his campaign’s ranks. Biden’s senior-most Latina campaign official and director of national coalitions abruptly resigned last week and did so, apparently, in protest. A friend of Biden’s former outreach chief lamented that the candidate “just really won’t change when it comes to the way he talks about immigration,” and it “just became too much.” Among the ways Biden transgresses against progressive ideals on the issue of immigration is to insist that illegal immigrants “get in line” and seek legal status and citizenship through existing channels rather than special congressional carveouts. That kind of talk may alienate self-styled Hispanic leaders, but it did nothing to undermine Biden’s support among the people for whom they presume to speak.
Indeed, the former vice president might be better off adhering to his instincts than the progressive consultancy class’s untested presumptions about Democratic voters. It is telling that Biden’s rivals believe that the only way to generate traction for their candidacies is to exacerbate identity-based tensions within their party’s coalition. But if Biden’s theory of the 2020 primary race is right, his opponents are wrong.