Experts: Black voters still back Biden after debate amid Trump’s “highly anti-Black” campaign

As President Joe Biden returns to the campaign trail to do damage control in the wake of his lackluster debate performance, he’s turned to a more comfortable yet critical part of his base to shore up support: Black voters.

Speaking without a teleprompter but with notes, Biden on Sunday sought to reassure a group of voters key to his 2020 victory that he is still able to beat former President Donald Trump and handle the trials of a second term at a worship service at one of Philadelphia’s largest Black churches.

“The joy cometh in the morning,” Biden told several hundred congregants at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, a sought-after location for Democrats, according to The New York Times. “You’ve never given up. In my life, and as your president, I’ve tried to walk my faith.”

Given that he’ll “lose this election guaranteed” if Black voter turnout falters, Biden’s recent efforts to attend to this part of his base are likely meant to send a signal to Black voters that he’s not taking them for granted, according to Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. 

“It’s Black voters who propelled him to the nomination in 2020, and it’s Black voters who helped him get elected president,” she told Salon, adding: “I think the question is whether or not Blacks are interpreting that as attentiveness, or whether they are reading something else into it, and in particular, whether or not the concerns that are being raised about Biden’s mental acuity actually resonate in Black communities.”

Black voters have been an instrumental part of Biden’s coalition since his 2020 campaign, particularly when voters in South Carolina, driven in part by the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., placed Biden on the path to the presidency by jumpstarting his then-ailing campaign, according to NBC News.

Though polls have indicated Black voters’ enthusiasm for him in the current election cycle has taken a dip, the voter demographic still sports higher opinions of his June 27 debate performance than other groups and is less inclined to believe he should withdraw from the race. Now, as he works to recover from his debate gaffe and less-than-impactful interview attempting to do the same, retaining and bolstering support of Black voters — and lawmakers — may again be critical to his political future.

“Biden knows where his bread is buttered,” Nadia Brown, a professor of government at Georgetown University and its women’s and gender studies program’s chair, told Salon. “He’s aware that he can’t win an election solely with Black votes, but he can certainly lose an election without Black votes.”

In a recent CBS News/YouGov survey of nearly 3,000 registered voters conducted in the days immediately following the debate, 58 percent of Black respondents said they believed Biden should be running for president, while 42 percent felt he shouldn’t.

While those numbers fell closely in line with the overall sentiment of Democrats polled, Black voters comprised the only racial demographic surveyed where a majority felt Biden should be in the race. White respondents overwhelmingly indicated they believe Biden shouldn’t be running, 74 percent to 26 percent, and 66 percent of Hispanic respondents said the same, compared to just 34 percent who said Biden should run.

Black voters were also more likely to say the debate did not change how they felt about Joe Biden at 52 percent, compared to 36 percent of both white and Hispanic respondents. 

Brown and Gillespie both credited that steadfast support of Biden in large part to the “pragmatism” of Black voters who understand they don’t have large enough numbers to play big in elections but can still make their voices heard and influence a race.

“The way that they do that is by understanding the temperature of the room — so who are white people likely to vote for?” explained Brown, who specializes in Black women’s politics. “We want to hook our wagon to the candidate that white people will put their massive numbers behind, that we can add to ours, to influence what that candidate does.”

Though Black voters, she said, may not feel “head over heels” for Biden, they also recognize “the policies and the leaders that he surrounds himself with” as better than the alternative presented by Trump. 

But where might that pragmatism guiding their backing of Biden despite his CNN snafu stem from?

“The experience of racism and discrimination in this country, and an understanding that the potential for things to get way worse is much greater than the potential for things to get way better regardless of who the Democratic candidate or nominee is,” argued Christopher Towler, an associate professor of political science who researches Black voter thought and behavior. 

“There’s a sense of detachment and alienation from American Politics such that there’s always going to be the need to protect oneself with an understanding that the opportunities for real, actual material gain are few and far between,” said Towler, who also serves as the director of the Black Voter Project. 

Brown added that Black people have to engage in politics “with an awareness that they can do but so much and that their fates are tied to people who control the structures” of power.

“Because politics is life, you have a recognition that what happens in the halls of power, if you’re there, or if you’re not there, will still impact what you do,” she said. “You don’t have the luxury of putting your head in the sand and saying, ‘I’m not going to engage.”

The same likely applies to Black lawmakers, who’ve stepped out in high numbers to voice their support of the president amid the Democratic scramble over his potential nomination, in which five Democratic leaders have called for Biden to step aside.

On a private call between Democratic committee leaders Sunday, which saw four senior Dems and other ranking leaders call on the president to withdraw, two former chairwomen of the Congressional Black Caucus — Reps. Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee of California — “forcefully” defended Biden, two sources familiar with their comments told NBC News.

CBC Chair Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who faces a competitive race of his own this fall that Biden’s candidacy could jeopardize, also affirmed his support for the president.

“President Joe Biden is the nominee and has been selected by millions of voters across the country, including voters here in Nevada,” Horsford said in a statement posted to X.

Nevadans, he added, “know President Biden and Vice President Harris are fighting for them. Like me they don’t want to see Donald Trump back in the White House and are ready to work and VOTE to ensure that doesn’t happen. We’re not going back, we’re moving forward.”

Another CBC member, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., issued a statement boosting Biden and denouncing his critics.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris defeated Donald Trump in 2020 and they are the Democratic ticket that will do so again this year,” she said. “Any ‘leader’ calling for President Biden to drop out needs to get their priorities straight and stop undermining this incredible actual leader who has delivered real results for our country.”

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Notably, none of the five House Democrats who have since called on Biden to drop out of the race — Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Texas; Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Mike Quigley of Illinois and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — are Black, NBC News notes.

Neither are any of the four Democratic committee leaders who urged Biden to bow out on the Sunday call — Reps. Joe Morelle and Jerry Nadler of New York, Mark Takano of California and Adam Smith of Washington.

Towler and Gillespie speculated that one of the key reasons why Black lawmakers are backing Biden is because they are “listening to their constituents” and paying attention to data that indicates Black voters are still backing Biden in decent showings.

“Both Black constituents and Black lawmakers understand the gravity of this election in different ways than the rest of America does,” Towler said, emphasizing Black communities coalescence around fighting against Trump in the primaries, similar to how they voted in 2020. “The main objective is to stop Trump, to keep from allowing him free rein this time with an agenda that is highly anti-Black.”

Gillespie added that CBC members are likely also being good strategists, owing their reticence to publicly jump into the debate around Biden’s fitness for the presidency to their recognizing the factors “being weighed” behind the scenes.

“CBC members have every reason and incentive to, one, be loyal team players to Joe Biden,” Gillespie said. “Two, Vice President Harris is also playing that card of ‘She’s a loyal team player. She doesn’t see blood in the water, and isn’t gunning for her shot.’ I think they will all be, ‘We’ll do it if we’re drafted, or Harris will do it if she’s drafted. But she wasn’t gunning for the job.’ Nor are Black politicians being craven saying, ‘Oh, we get one of our own back in as president by calling for you to stand down because we think she has next.’ That could also backfire.”

As far as the role Black voters will play come November, Gillespie said she expects the demographics’ voting patterns to follow its historical course, with the Democratic candidate winning about 90 percent, give-or-take two points, of the Black vote. 

“That’s all great and well and good, but if turnout is anemic among Black voters, then that could be the difference between winning or losing a battleground state,” she said, noting that Black constituents would “have to turn out at rates that are proportional to their numbers in the electorate” in order for Biden to reach at least 50 percent of the vote. 

Towler agreed, explaining that should Biden fail to boost Black voter turnout to rates as high as the numbers he saw in 2020 — which current turnout projections suggest is the case — it’s going to be tough for him to win those battleground states that he needs to keep the White House.

Brown said she expects older Black voters to “remain in Biden’s corner” due to a “certain generational and cultural tie” with respect to their historical allegiance to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, however, she predicts younger Black voters — Gen Zers and Millennials — to split from their older counterparts as they question what Biden is doing for them now in a moment characterized by higher costs of living and policies that work to the “detriment of of young folks, young black folks, young queer folks, young women.”

Gillespie said that in order to mobilize those disaffected Black voters, the Democratic strategy will have to “be what it always was,” door-knocking and making phone calls, while also properly addressing questions of Biden’s age and mental acuity. 

“This race is not going to be won on debates. It’s not going to be won on the airwaves,” Gillespie said. “It’s going to be won on the conversations that people have at community fairs, at barbecues, at potlucks, at coffee klatches. This is where all of these concerns get aired out, and Democrats are going to have to craft a credible and ready response to these and not be floored when people ask these questions.”

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