The Memo: Fight for black voters intensifies as Biden struggles

The battle for black support in the Democratic primary has broken wide open — and that’s bad news for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE.

Biden had shot out to a lead in early polling, in large part because of his strong standing in the black community. 

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But that backing has weakened in the wake of a first debate in Miami that saw Biden come under pressure from Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE (D-Calif.) over his opposition to federally mandated busing and his affection for two now-deceased segregationist senators.

Biden’s answers on those questions were widely considered subpar. 

He has still has not cleaned up the mess, almost one week on from the debate.

Biden’s difficulty “gets deeper by the day, as long as he doesn’t clarify it,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and broadcaster, told The Hill. “It’s not a deal-breaker but it is certainly a deal-shaker.”

Sharpton expressed particular dismay with Biden’s defense of his position on busing, which centered around the idea that it should be decided locally, not by the national government.

“Wait a minute, are we talking about ‘states’ rights?’ ” Sharpton asked.

New polls this week suggested Sharpton’s concerns were widely shared.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed Biden's support among black Democrats having been cut roughly in half in a month, cratering from around 40 percent to about 20 percent. 

A Quinnipiac University poll showed Biden retaining the support of 31 percent of black Democratic respondents, down from 48 percent the previous month — and Harris right behind him with 27 percent. 

The results are ominous for Biden given his previous polling leads, his high name recognition, Harris’s comparatively recent arrival on the national stage and Biden’s service to former President ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE.

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Supporters of rival candidates are emphasizing what they see as his weakness.

“The Obama halo will only shine for so long,” academic Cornel West told The Hill. West, a supporter of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE (I-Vt.), added, “Sooner or later, Biden will have to stand on his own two feet.”

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who is supporting Harris, said that the high-profile exchange at the debate was “not really about busing. It was about Biden having issues dealing with race, and not atoning for those and reconciling those.”

Sellers asserted that “Joe Biden’s support in the black community has been wide but it is not deep.”

Biden and his supporters vigorously contest that idea. 

They insist that his record on race is an honorable one, and that this recommended him to Obama as vice president in the first place. And they argue that social media platforms tend to amplify the voices of younger, more radical activists and thus underplay the older, more ideologically moderate voters who form the core of Biden’s support.

It’s also true that not every poll shows a precipitous drop in Biden’s support among non-white voters. 

A CNN/SSRS survey for example, showed the race tightening sharply over the past month — but it still had Biden in first place. His support among non-white voters had declined by a modest 5 points, from 30 percent to 25 percent.

There is no doubt that black voters will be pivotal in determining the outcome of the nomination. Not only do African American voters form an essential part of the Democratic coalition nationwide, they typically account for an outright majority of the voters in South Carolina, one of the key early primaries.

“You cannot win the Democratic nomination without overwhelming support from the black community. It’s just not possible,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief public affairs officer for progressive group MoveOn. “And for the Democratic nominee, they cannot win the presidency without overwhelming support from black voters.”

But Jean-Pierre also noted that, when it comes to black support, “I don’t think anything is locked in, for anyone.”

Harris is one of two black senators in the field this year, along with Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.). In addition, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.) are both making their own determined efforts to court African American support.

The multicandidate field reduces the chances of a straightforward shift in support as was seen during the 2008 cycle. 

On that occasion, Obama struggled initially against then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE (D-N.Y.), as she won considerable support from black voters as well as black elected officials. But that began to change quickly, especially after Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses.

This time around, it seems much more likely that black support will continue to be divided among several candidates.

“We’re in a different moment,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which works to harness black political power. “This is the most diverse field of Democratic candidates for president that we have ever seen … I’m not sure we are going to see [black] voters move en masse from one candidate to the next.”

There is, too, a risk of oversimplifying or exaggerating the effect of a single moment. Not everyone was persuaded that Harris’s debate challenge to Biden — forceful though it was — will ultimately benefit her as much as her fans think.

Several sources who spoke to The Hill noted that her decision to put the spotlight on Biden’s past invited an examination of her own record as a prosecutor. 

Harris previously served as California’s attorney general and, before that, as San Francisco district attorney — posts in which progressives have been critical of parts of her record, including what they perceive to be harsh policies against parents whose children were prone to truancy.

“Suppose Biden turns around and says, ‘Let’s talk about your past’ — things, when she was attorney general, that she did or didn’t do,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a California-based author and radio host. “You are going down a slippery slope, raking another candidate over the coals” in the way Harris did.

Still, one thing seems certain: any sense that Biden’s connection with Obama would offer him long-standing protection among black voters is eroding by the day.

“The mistake Biden and Biden's campaign is making is thinking ‘My association with Barack Obama is enough,’ and it isn’t,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, an organization that seeks to promote non-white female candidates. “He has strong name ID but he is losing steam.”

Rashad Robinson, the president of Color Of Change, a civil rights organization, agreed.

“Black people didn’t wait on long lines and surpass white voters in terms of turnout in 2012 for the first time because they were showing up for Joe Biden,” Robinson said. 

“They were showing up for Barack Obama — and Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaWe must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary MORE.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s presidency.