While much of the media attention up to now has focused on what damage Bernie Sanders’s campaign could do to Hillary Clinton, we recently had a powerful reminder that the real 2016 wild card, particularly when it comes to black voters, is Joe Biden. Clinton and Biden both made high-profile appearances at various social events for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, events filled with elected officials and other African Americans who will be crucial in determining who the next president is.
Though many African-American Democratic elected officials in attendance went on the record with their support for Clinton’s presidential candidacy, there is little proof that their loyalty is representative of the majority of African Americans. In part because unlike elected officials who have longstanding personal relationships with the Clintons, some dating back decades, the average black voter does not. Furthermore, for millennials coming of age in the #BlackLivesMatter era, and the era of the real first black president, the era of Bill Clinton as the honorary first black president seems as distant as the world before the Internet and cellphones.
A recent poll confirms the threat of Biden’s candidacy to Clinton. It found that 34 percent (PDF) of black voters in South Carolina consider Joe Biden their first choice in a presidential primary. That’s still less than those calling Clinton their first choice (52 percent) but high enough that it’s likely to set off alarm bells in Clintonland. After all, her biggest competition hasn’t held a single press conference or run a single ad yet and he’s already gaining with voters assumed by many to be her base.
One black Democratic political operative who asked not to be named said that Biden has always been the greatest threat to a potential Clinton candidacy because he challenges every major strength Clinton has: “She served in the Senate. He served longer. She was Secretary of State. He was head of Foreign Relations Committee.” But most of all, this operative said, particularly if you are a black voter and you are asking yourself, “Who can carry the legacy of the Obama presidency forward? Well, he was vice president.”
But it’s not just that. “There’s this notion of authenticity,” the operative continued. “For many African Americans, Biden just comes across as phenomenally authentic.”
Biden’s popularity among black Americans is something that has been growing since the 2008 campaign. I first began to appreciate how unique it was when relatives of mine began referencing him by various nicknames, “Jo Jo” among them. What the media referred to as his gaffes, I noticed black Americans seemed to have another word for: honesty.
For instance when he told an audience comprised of a large number of African Americans during a 2012 campaign appearance that “they’re going to put y’all back in chains,” the comment sparked strong rebuke from Republicans. That rebuke doesn’t change the fact that there are plenty of black Americans who hold the view that plenty of conservatives would like to see them figuratively and literally held back. Looking back from 2015, with our mounting concerns about the treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement and about those in positions of power who are apologists for such injustice, Biden’s quote sounds even less outrageous to black Americans.
Jamal Simmons, an African-American political strategist who’s advised a number of Democratic presidential campaigns, said that Biden’s willingness to speak his mind no matter what the blowback has become one of his greatest strengths. Simmons mentioned a working-class African-American woman who recently told him that the reason she likes Joe Biden is that unlike most politicians, “You always know what he thinks because he’ll tell you.”
Simmons and the other operative both drew comparisons to another candidate who has shocked the political establishment with how well he’s doing, in large part due to his so-called gaffes: Donald Trump. As with Biden, those who like Trump like him for his outspokenness, and while it may cause media criticism, it only engenders greater loyalty from fans. And compared to Trump, Biden comes across as downright mild-mannered. “In an era of Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s gaffes are OK,” Simmons said.
It’s worth noting that a recent Quinnipiac Poll found Biden doing better than Clinton against Trump in a head-to-head matchup. (And better than she did against Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.)
The Trump comparison highlights two major challenges for Clinton. There are a lot of words Clinton fans and critics alike would use to summarize her: smart and hardworking, sure; but authentic, not so much. But the other challenge, as I’ve written before, is the enthusiasm gap. It’s not that African Americans don’t like Hillary Clinton, but it would be hard to argue that they love her.
As Simmons explained, “Democrats win when they love a candidate. Like Barack Obama.” When they don’t, you end up with the result from 2004, when John Kerry lost. During the 2012 re-election, black voters showed their love for the president by having a higher turnout than any other voting demographic for the first time in history.
Another factor that may help Biden is that blacks may find him more relatable. “He’s had so much loss in his life,” Simmons said. “He understands pain and there’s no community in this country that understands pain as much.” Simmons noted that shortly following Beau Biden’s death in May, the vice president and his family joined the parishioners of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine black members and staff were killed earlier this year, in worship, saying at the time he hoped to draw strength from them.
But Simmons said the real deciding factor in a Clinton-Biden faceoff might come down to one name: Obama. Not Barack, but Michelle. “If Michelle Obama gives any indication she likes this Joe Biden idea, I think that opens the gate of African Americans taking a look at Biden,” Simmons said. “The only person who has more credibility on the streets than Barack is her.” And rumors have long persisted that while the current and former first ladies have a cordial relationship, it is not seen as one that is close, and certainly not as close as that of the Bidens and the Obamas.
The Clinton campaign knows that in order to have any chance of winning a primary and ultimately the presidency, black voters are key—black women in particular, who often play an integral role in mobilizing other members of the black community to go to the polls. In the days following the CBC gala Clinton has appeared on prominent African-American programs, like The Tom Joyner Morning Show. But perhaps the most telling sign of her consciousness of who will ultimately determine whether she wins the presidency or not is the tweet she sent following President Obama's keynote address before the Congressional Black Caucus gala.
Clinton wrote:“.@POTUS is right: When we ensure black women and girls have the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential, America gets ahead. -H”