Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters

Sen. Elizabeth Warren faces an uphill climb in winning support from African American voters, say Democratic strategists and other political observers.

While Warren (D-Mass.) has been moving up in recent polls, she has struggled to lure black voters to her campaign.

A Fox News survey released last week showed Warren receiving 8 percent among black voters, a grim statistic if she is looking to win the nomination. 

{mosads}A separate poll by the Pew Research Center found that while former Vice President Joe Biden received 29 percent of support among African Americans, only 4 percent were throwing their support behind Warren. More black voters also named Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as their pick.

“We definitely need to do better there,” one Warren ally acknowledged. “We can’t win without support from the black community. Period.” 

Biden has dominated polls of black voters so far.

He enjoys a huge lead in early polls of South Carolina, where a Post and Courier poll this month found him winning 36 percent support overall compared to 17 percent for Warren, who was in second place.

The polls show Biden particularly has an edge with older black voters, who are both more likely to go to the polls and likely have good feelings for Biden because of his years working with former President Obama.

“We talk a lot about Biden’s support among working-class white voters, but his appeal to working-class black voters is underestimated,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.

“Their lack of familiarity with Warren, as well as her own brand of disruptive politics, may not clearly explicate a path to political and economic power for older, more moderate African Americans,” added Smikle.

Older black voters tend to be more “pragmatic,” which translates to support for Biden, added Clemmie Harris, an assistant professor of American history and Africana studies at Utica College.

Many black voters — and particularly older voters — “do not identify as being progressive,” said Harris, who added that Warren “has to figure out how to organically connect with black voters who don’t see themselves as progressive.”

“If [Warren] is going to be successful in the South, she’ll really have to develop an infrastructure that is going to hit those critical areas and get her name and message out there, and she’s got to be able to plug into those relationships and build it organically,” Harris said. 

Warren has taken steps to make inroads with what is the key voting bloc in the Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, she released a wide-ranging criminal justice proposal that would eliminate the death penalty and cash bail. It would also gut much of the 1994 crime bill, which Biden helped craft during his time in the Senate.

“The 1994 crime bill exacerbated incarceration rates in this country, punishing people more severely for even minor infractions and limiting discretion in charging and sentencing in our judicial system,” Warren said in a Medium post about her proposal. 

Warren has made a point of appearing before large African American crowds. 

Last week, speaking at the Youth Leaders Conference organized by the Black Church PAC, Warren — who is Methodist — spoke of her favorite passage from the Bible.

“Every single one of us has the Lord within us,” she said. “Secondly, the Lord does not call on us to sit back. The Lord does not just call on us to have a good heart. The Lord calls on us to act.” 

In April, she also received a standing ovation at the She the People conference in Houston, appearing before large crowds of African American women. 

Warren has also held listening sessions with African American activists around the country, her campaign aides say, most recently in Philadelphia before the Netroots conference. 

Aides stress that she continues to study why the path to economic security is so treacherous for the middle class and is an even rockier and steeper climb for African Americans. 

The senator has also surrounded herself with knowledgeable aides.

Warren’s political director and senior adviser Rebecca Pearcey, for example, is a well-respected veteran of the Democratic Party, having worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a string of campaigns. 

D’Shawna Bernard, the African American outreach director, is a veteran of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Rich McDaniel is the National Organizing Director. LaToia Jones, a consultant on the campaign, is also a Black Caucus veteran. 

The campaign also recently hired Alencia Johnson — a Planned Parenthood veteran — to be the campaign’s director of public engagement.  

But more has to be done if she wants to gain traction, strategists say. 

Anton Gunn, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Obama administration, said one of Warren’s biggest challenges is that she is unknown to the black community. 

Warren and her surrogates need to spend more time on the ground, he said. 

“You’ve got to spend time in South Carolina and across the South and you’ve got to spend time not just in the big cities but in the rural communities where people live,” he said. “The candidates get that about Iowa. But to be honest with you, they have to have the same intentionality in South Carolina. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Gunn said Biden has done something else that has aligned himself with black voters: He talks about his allegiance to Obama. “He’s become known as the man who had Barack Obama’s back.” 

He said Warren could highlight her working relationship with Obama — particularly on issues of financial reform— but has yet to articulate that connection. 

“She doesn’t play that up enough,” he said. 

One former Obama White House aide agreed that it will be tough to pull support away from Biden, who has decades of deep connections to the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups. 

But the aide said Warren’s best way to gain interest from black voters is “to be viable in the early states and hope that Biden underperforms.”

“Meaning, if her candidacy becomes more viable and her policies are solid, then she has a shot to turn some heads,” the aide said. 

Smikle agreed. 

“As a cautionary note, questions about electability can be erased with a solid showing in Iowa, which worked for Obama in 2008 when his victory there started the moment of black votes away from Hillary and toward him,” he said. 

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Democratic primary Elizabeth Warren Iowa Joe Biden South Carolina
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