vision 2020

Black Voters Didn’t Need a Black Presidential Candidate. They Won’t Need a Black VP Either.

Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A new Washington Post–Ipsos poll contains some of the most comprehensive insight yet into the preferences of black prospective 2020 voters. Published on Saturday, the results of the all-online survey — which, despite methodological concerns about internet polling, largely echo the crosstabs found at Morning Consult and other well-regarded pollsters — provide lots of information that we already knew: Joe Biden remains the front-runner by a long shot, at 48 percent; Bernie Sanders comes in at a fairly distant second, at 20 percent, but leads among black adults ages 18 to 35 by a margin of 42–30. Pragmatism remains an overwhelming determiner, with nearly 60 percent of respondents saying that it’s most important to nominate the Democratic candidate with the best chance of defeating President Trump, and just one-third preferring the candidate who best aligns with them on the issues. Among those who lean Democrat, Biden is considered the most likely to oust the Republican incumbent (53 percent), handle the issues most important to black Americans (32 percent), and to unite the country (43 percent).

But one of the more notable findings is how little the conventional wisdom — that black people would be most drawn to a black candidate, or, if not, at least require that a white nominee choose a black running mate — seems to reflect reality. According to the survey, 72 percent of respondents feel that it’s either “not so important” (35 percent) or “not important at all” (38 percent) for an eventual white nominee to choose a black vice president to diversify their ticket. This news seems unlikely to prompt either Biden or Sanders, both white men over 75, to change course from what their plans already appeared to be: Rumors circulated last year that Biden was considering naming a VP pick before even winning the primary, and Sanders said in a recent interview with the New York Times editorial board that he definitely wouldn’t choose an “old white guy” for his; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who is black, is widely considered a front-runner for both. But these findings do suggest that the clannishness of black-voter behavior is overstated. Today, as in past elections, whatever intraracial affinity black voters feel toward black candidates is easily discarded when those candidates fail to convince them that a racist, majority-white general electorate will support them and prevent a Republican from winning.

It’s easy to forget that the excitement generated by the candidacies of Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson before him, and the consequent successes of both, hinged on unique circumstances. Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988 were buoyed by massive voter-registration drives that, in some cases, doubled or even tripled the black electorate in multiple states. This generated an outpouring of black-voter energy driven not by the mere fact of a charismatic black candidate, but a candidate who’d made huge investments in expanding black political power at a time when Republicans were making inroads decimating it. Two decades after Jackson failed to secure the Democratic nomination for the second election in a row, even Obama — a man of enduring popularity among black Americans who’d go on to almost match Jackson’s showing among black primary voters — had to convince black Democrats he could win over white people in Iowa and New Hampshire before they defected from the candidate most had initially supported, Hillary Clinton.

Neither man’s approach is prescriptive or easily replicable, but when paired with the failures of the likes of Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton, and more recent black presidential candidates — like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — they suggest most definitively that black candidates can’t expect the benefit of the doubt, even from their presumed constituencies. This is as true in the post-Obama era, when the reality of a black ex-president is undeniable, as it was beforehand, and sometimes ruthlessly so: News that Booker dropped out of the 2020 race on Monday has left the Democratic primary with just two remaining candidates of color, Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick. Yang, a Taiwanese-American businessman, has an enthusiastic base sustaining his upstart run, but one would be forgiven for forgetting that Patrick, the black former Massachusetts governor, is running at all. Harris’s once-promising campaign floundered, and Booker and Julián Castro, the Mexican-American former HUD secretary, failed to generate much interest for theirs. All have collectively upended the notion that the person best equipped to rebuild the so-called “Obama coalition” — the mix of Northern whites, young people, and energized black and Latino voters that eventually propelled the ex-president to the White House in 2008 — would inevitably be he or she who, at least superficially, most closely resembled Obama himself.

But the Post–Ipsos poll’s findings are even more suggestive. Not only were black Americans not sold on this cycle’s black candidates, most aren’t particularly moved by the prospect of white front-runners using a black VP pick as an olive branch. At the most recent primary debate, candidates were given the opportunity to lament the absence of nonwhite prospects who qualified to be onstage, and with fair reason: The centrality of voters of color to the Democratic coalition has prompted even Sanders — whose aversion to so-called “identity politics,” the practice of singling out certain demographic groups and appealing to them through their unique experiences, is well documented — to address his shortcomings among black voters in 2016 by amassing black surrogates and promising not to choose a 2020 running mate who looked too much like him. Yet as I’ve written before, black voters are under no illusions about the electorate to which they’re submitting a candidate. Many would no doubt appreciate a black president or vice president. Few are willing to risk four more years of Trump to make it so. As a result, today’s white Democratic primary competitors are under minimal pressure to realize a ticket that reflects the diversity of the American people. It’s an indictment of widespread racism that this is true. But it also vivifies what so many black voters have been telling white Americans for decades, with varying degrees of success: You don’t owe us carrots. Government that looks out for our interests will do.

Black Voters Didn’t Need a Black Candidate