On Wednesday in Atlanta, for the first time at a 2020 Democratic primary debate, the topic of Joe Biden’s support from black voters was greeted with laughter. Pundits have largely cast the former vice-president’s polling success with black Americans as stemming from name recognition, his perceived popularity with pro-Trump constituencies, and goodwill generated by his time as Obama’s vice-president, which combined have convinced them that he’s their best chance to retake the White House. Biden has responded by challenging their faith at every opportunity. He has spoken fondly about his civil working relationships with segregationists Herman Talmadge and James O. Eastland while appearing to sleepwalk through several debate appearances, losing track of his thoughts and struggling to remember talking points amid a campaign that seems hell-bent on minimizing his contact with the public. Most objective observers would conclude that this man has no business doing his own laundry, let alone running for president. Yet none of it seems to have damaged his prospects: The 77-year-old remains the Democratic front-runner, including among black and Latino primary voters specifically, and barely trails Elizabeth Warren among white ones, according to the latest The Economist–YouGov poll.
But after a thorough upbraiding by Cory Booker over his opposition to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday — a diatribe that also touched on the need for a Democrat candidate who could re-create the “Obama coalition” and excite black voters in crucial general-election states like Wisconsin — Biden chose to explicitly defend and then rationalize his black support. It did not go well:
I, um, you know, I’m part of that Obama coalition. I come out of the black community, in terms of my support. If you’ve noticed, I have more people supporting me, in the black community, that have announced for me, because they know me. They know who I am. Three former chairs of the Black Caucus. The only bla — African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate. Whole range of people —
“Nope,” Kamala Harris interrupted. Booker added, “That’s not true.” Both points were well taken: Biden was boasting about his support from Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, but she wasn’t the only one. The other was Harris, who was standing on Wednesday’s debate stage mere feet away from the vice-president. “The other one is here,” Harris added. She and the audience joined in laughter at Biden’s befuddlement as he tried to backtrack. “I said the first. I said the first. The first African-American elected. So my point is — My point is: One of the reasons I was picked to be vice-president was because of my relationship, long-standing relationship, with the black community. I was part of that coalition.”
Gaffe aside, the claim that Biden’s relationship with black voters fueled his selection as Obama’s running mate is probably false. As my colleague Ed Kilgore has noted, the ex-president’s main criteria were more likely that he needed a VP who’d been in politics long enough to assuage voter concerns about his inexperience, white enough to smooth over anxieties about his blackness, and old enough that they wouldn’t eventually run for president afterward, thereby eliminating a potential source of tension. Biden chose to run anyway, demonstrating that his isn’t merely a campaign unsupported by Obama’s recognition of his knack for courting black voters, as he implied; it’s a campaign whose very existence likely defies Obama’s wishes. But the polling numbers are hard to dispute. His strong showing with nonwhite voters has been so formidable — and seemingly impervious to the bruises of primary season — that some of my colleagues feel that he has a realistic path to the nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire.
Yet even as the argument that Biden is the most electable candidate sounds increasingly like a joke, his resilience as a front-runner suggests the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby dogged belief in his electability goes further toward making him electable than anything he actually says or does. In theory, this is understandable: Biden is a known quantity and on paper looks like a strong candidate to capitalize on Trump’s vulnerabilities while providing enough overlap to compete with him among conservatives. But watching him shamble through the primary, arguing loudly and often against redistributive solutions to taxation and health care, even as the black-white wealth gap yawns in his face and a lack of medical access continues to impact poor black people disproportionately, one cannot help but wonder if delusion has consumed the primary electorate, or if older black voters in particular — who no doubt believe that they’re being pragmatic in their support for Biden — are making decisions based on an impression formed in the past that no longer reflects the present reality.
Biden’s confrontation with Booker and Harris further confirmed that he’s a man out of his depth. And although neither has distinguished him- or herself as the candidate that deserves Biden’s base should he falter, their critiques of the former vice-president’s cachet with black voters are substantively correct. Even so, perhaps the more damning takeaway is what Biden’s enduring black support says about the broader electorate, and black voters’ dire assessment of it. If indeed so many black voters are responding to the prospect of another Trump victory in 2020 by endeavoring to nominate a challenger in obvious decline, it means that they believe deeply in Biden on some level — but also, perhaps, don’t believe that white voters will choose more responsibly if given another option. And there are abundant reasons for black Americans to look askance at their white counterparts’ political decisions. The majority of white voters regularly back Republicans, after all — a party that’s long defined itself in opposition to the prospect of multiracial democracy and its attendant power dynamic. Most recently, these voters elected Donald Trump. And they continue to support him and approve of his job performance in staggering numbers, even as his dishonesty, bigotry, and corruption have evolved from campaign features to governing principles. If Biden is black voters’ chosen candidate, it suggests either a malfunctioning survival instinct or a profound lack of faith in what the majority of white voters will do given a less-proven alternative. And considering the irresponsibility with which so much of the white electorate has comported itself of late, the likelier answer isn’t hard to determine.