The intended audience for most of Tuesday’s debate in Charleston was black voters, who comprise more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. Tailoring a message that appeals to such an ideologically diverse, frequently demonized, opportunistically invoked but typically neglected cohort has been a special challenge for candidates. Between the much-discussed age gap separating older, more conservative and younger, more progressive black voters, and the state’s role as a bellwether for how a candidate is likely to fare in other states with large black populations, the stakes seem colossal, even as navigating them renders prescriptive catchalls like “the black vote” and “the black community” hard to square with reality. Lucky for the candidates, huge majorities of black voters have been transparent about what they want. The likelihood of seeming certainties — like Joe Biden’s strong showing in the February 29 primary — may be narrowing by the week, but the premise on which they’re built has stayed the same: Most black voters are more committed to ousting Donald Trump than any other electoral consideration.
The desire for a compelling electability argument from the president’s would-be Democratic challenger is implied. The candidates on Tuesday mostly needed to make a strong argument for why they would win in the general election. What audiences got instead was the most chaotic debate of the entire cycle — one unusually beholden to the capabilities of the moderators, which were lacking. A striking tolerance for cross talk, insufficient time granted for answers, a tendency toward vapidity (the debate ended on the two-part question, “What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?” and “What’s your favorite quote?”) and a denouement that left it unclear if the debate had actually ended (it had not) made it hard for any coherent argument to break through, let alone one about electability. Even Pete Buttigieg’s usual efforts to appear above the fray by suggesting that what voters hate most is politicians who disagree with each other were delivered as a droning mumble beneath the remarks being made by his opponents. When, at the end of the event, President Trump’s reelection campaign said that the Democrats were a “hot mess,” it was only mostly lacking in self-awareness.
Contentious dialogues are to be expected, especially in an election with such high stakes. Candidates who whine about pugilism onstage are rightly decried as insufferable. And nothing in this election has yet rivaled the disorder of the 2016 Republican primary from which Trump emerged. But it’s difficult to imagine any voter’s mind getting changed by Tuesday’s, and even harder to envision the black voters at whom much of it was targeted emerging with a clearer notion of who’s electable. If anything, it seems likely to affirm preexisting trends while possibly leaving many viewers with a sour taste in their mouths. From an individual standpoint, Sanders did little to undermine his status as the national front-runner. Biden’s applause lines were greeted with enough cheers from supporters in the audience to give the impression that his local popularity is unshaken. Nobody imploded. Nobody stood out. Nor does it seem likely that anyone watched the debate and then felt great about the state of the race. The entire event seemed aggressively defiant toward the very notion of reassurance. Any clarity that might’ve helped viewers conclude who was the safest bet come November was drowned out by a sense of shrill desperation — both from front-runners looking to shore up their status and laggards headlining campaigns in their death throes.
But if there’s an upside, it’s the liberative potential of a race where familiar electability molds are so muddied. This won’t help anyone sleep better at night, but the precarious nature of black life in a country marked by discrimination and other racist asymmetries has — to a unique extent — required black voters not only to consider their own interests when selecting a candidate, but whether that candidate could appeal to a white electorate that’s rarely lacking in more dangerous options. Guessing who racist white voters will find palatable is an imprecise science. But it always requires compromise: No unabashed advocate for black equality has ever won the White House, but a seemingly endless supply of white supremacists and people willing to appease them have. The obligatory pragmatism of black electoral considerations is a winnowing force. Candidates with whom large shares of black voters might agree on principle are discarded because the same voters fear that white people won’t back them. The lack of sure bets in 2020 makes this determination less clear-cut than usual. The closest candidate by traditional standards — Joe Biden, who’s been in politics for decades — exhibits clear age-related mental decline. The race’s front-runner is a self-described socialist. The candidate with the most money is an authoritarian billionaire who presided over a racist police state. And of course, the Republican incumbent is a corrupt, white-nationalist demagogue. Absent certitudes, black voters in South Carolina could simply opt for what’s familiar — and if Biden’s polling holds, that seems like a probable outcome. But it also would validate their exercising a privilege that, in theory, should be every American’s birthright: the ability to vote for who you want because you like them and think they would make the best president.