Black leaders say African American support in presidential primary is fluid

Nearly one-fifth of African American voters in South Carolina are undecided over which Democrat to back in the state’s presidential primary, a warning sign for former Vice President Joe Biden, who is counting on support from black voters to pull him across the finish line.

Biden has built up mountains of goodwill among African American voters as the vice president to the nation’s first black president, and he remains the clear favorite among voters in South Carolina, where about two-thirds of Democratic primary voters are black.

{mosads}But African American leaders say support in the Democratic primary is fluid and could shift quickly behind whichever candidate looks strongest in a head-to-head matchup against President Trump.

“This cycle, many black voters are making a pragmatic choice, driven as much or more by who can defeat Trump as the issues they care about,” said Cornell William Brooks, a South Carolina native and the former NAACP president who is now a director at the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice.

“Biden starts with a lot of capital, but he’s seen some erosion in the polls and there are many voters willing to change their minds,” Brooks said. “There’s a great deal of fluidity in this race.”

New polling shows black voters are increasingly expressing interest in second choice candidates, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), or newer faces including tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The latest Post & Courier-Change Research survey found Biden’s lead in South Carolina down to 11 points in October after he was ahead by more than 30 points in May.

Biden leads Harris by 21 points among black voters in the poll, down about 10 points from August, when he had a 30-point lead over Sanders and Harris among black voters in South Carolina.

A CBS News-YouGov survey from earlier this month found that 58 percent of Biden’s backers in South Carolina described their support for him as “strong,” but 42 percent said it was only “somewhat” or “not” strong.

About half of voters in that survey said they’re also considering Warren, while 41 percent said they’re considering Sanders and about a quarter said they’re thinking about Harris.

Biden’s strength has been buoyed by the idea that he’s the most electable Democrat, with 70 percent in the CBS News-YouGov survey believing he’d defeat Trump, the highest number in the field by far, and about 20 points better than Warren or Sanders.

“We need a candidate that can beat Donald Trump,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at a fundraiser for Biden this week. “That candidate is [Joe Biden].”

But the latest Monmouth University survey found Biden’s support in South Carolina down overall from 39 percent in July to 33 percent.

When black voters were asked to give their top two preferences, Biden came in at 52 percent, down from 62 in July, while Warren jumped from 11 to 26 percent and Sanders ticked up from 23 to 25 percent.

Biden remains the top candidate among black voters in the poll, at 39 percent, but 19 percent of black voters said they’re undecided.

In the 2008 Democratic primary race, the same poll found Hillary Clinton had 77 percent support from black voters in South Carolina at this point, with only 11 percent undecided. After former President Obama showed surprising strength in Iowa, black voters moved quickly behind his campaign, propelling him to a nearly 30-point victory in South Carolina.

“This suggests that South Carolina may not be much of a firewall for Biden if he underperforms in the first contests,” said Patrick Murray, director of a Monmouth University Polling Institute.

In addition to the pragmatic question of who can win, black voters in 2019 have a full menu of candidates with different visions and styles to choose from.

Warren has electrified grassroots liberals and leapt to the top of the pack as an expert on policy. Her proposal to combat black maternal mortality has been a selling point in South Carolina.

After struggling among racial minorities in the 2016 primary contest, Sanders has put together a diverse coalition of supporters, underscored by several high-profile African American surrogates, including rapper Killer Mike and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner.

Harris has struggled recently, but she has 10 Congressional Black Caucus endorsements compared with Biden’s seven. Harris attended Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black universities, and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African American sorority in the U.S.

Booker, another African American running for president, is called a “favorite son” among some black leaders, who are enthused by his success story and charisma.

Buttigieg has been hamstrung by racial controversies back home in South Bend and being gay is a barrier for some black people, but his campaign has been working overtime to make a connection here. A surprise showing in Iowa, where Buttigieg is suddenly running strong, could ignite his bid as the race rounds into South Carolina.

Still, Biden remains the first choice among most black voters, who are in position to deliver him the nomination if he can maintain altitude through the early voting states.

“Biden has his arms around African American support and is squeezing ever tighter in these communities, particularly among older black voters,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “But anyone around this business knows that things can change in a twinkle of an eye.”

The South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 is important on its own, but also could be a springboard to Super Tuesday, which takes place just three days later.

Contests that day will run across a raft of states with large African American populations, including Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia.

Tags Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren G.K. Butterfield Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg

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