Joe Biden says he is months away from selecting his running mate.
But that hasn’t stopped a growing chorus of Democrats from signaling to the former vice president that selecting a black woman to round off the party’s ticket is the right choice for November. The movement, which has escalated publicly in recent weeks among activists and pundits on screen, has been growing privately behind the scenes among members of Congress and within the highest ranks of Biden’s campaign.
Inside Biden’s vast orbit, one leader in particular, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 race for governor, has caught the attention of two top lieutenants. On an afternoon in mid-March, The Daily Beast overheard a top adviser to Biden, a prominent Democrat, speaking candidly about the campaign’s vice-presidential process to another individual at a restaurant in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Adams Morgan. The conversation took place inside and in public, near the front of the building, shortly before the district implemented lockdown orders for COVID-19.
In the one-on-one conversation, the senior adviser said Steve Ricchetti, the campaign chairman and a top Biden aide, and Anita Dunn, another longtime high-ranking Biden adviser, both liked Abrams for that role. The adviser, who has worked with Biden spanning many years, said some officials within the campaign would like to see the Georgia Democrat appear more frequently on television and to show that she is a skilled debater, according to notes The Daily Beast typed on a cellphone as the conversation took place. Reached on Wednesday night, the adviser said that they were not aware what Ricchetti or Dunn are thinking now, but acknowledged they both liked Abrams.
The Biden campaign and a spokesperson for Abrams declined to comment. But as the party continues to coalesce around Biden, and Abrams’ approach to the process (recently telling Elle she is “prepared and excited” to serve if selected) becomes more explicit, the overheard conversation from last month becomes even more relevant. Speaking remotely from Atlanta in an appearance on the ABC’s The View on Wednesday, she was just as direct.
“I try to be straightforward,” she said, pointing to her 25 years in service and appearing to deliberately use the word “soul”—part of Biden’s campaign slogan, “battle for the soul of the nation”—in her answer. “I think I would be very effective in helping us restore the dignity and the soul of not only America, but helping those who have been left behind for so long finally see themselves as part of the solution,” she said.
When asked by host Sunny Hostin specifically about whether she feels Biden should make a commitment to nominating a black woman as his running mate, Abrams was just as explicit in her answer, saying the Democratic Party needs “a ticket that reflects the diversity of America.”
“Women of color, particularly black women, are the strongest part of the Democratic Party, the most loyal,” she said. “That loyalty isn’t simply how we vote, it’s how we work. And if we want to signal that that work will continue, that we’re going to reach not just to certain segments of our community, but to the entire country, then we need a ticket that reflects the diversity of America.”
Abrams’ comments reflect sentiments that have intensified in private, and spilled out into the public, among black Democratic elected officials, activists, and media figures following Biden’s pledge in March to choose a female running mate. With his campaign taking a 180 degree turn from electoral life support to presumptive nominee status after the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday surge, leaders are making the push more direct, and with more urgency, as chatter about his prospective choices picks up.
“At some point, when do you reward your good soldiers?,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “It was black people who turned Joe Biden’s campaign around.”
In the 2008 presidential cycle, 69 percent of black women voted, representing the highest voter-turnout rate in the election, while in 2012 and 2016, that number was about 64 percent, several percentage points higher than men. In 2018, the first election during the Trump administration, black women’s turnout increased 16 percentage points from previous midterms, from 41 percent to 57 percent.
Fudge, who, before Biden, previously endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), another possible top vice-presidential contender, said she hears from voters and fellow Democratic members of Congress nearly every day about their desire for Biden to elevate a black woman to the position of running mate. Those conversations frequently center around the need to increase turnout among the party’s base, predominantly black voters, to defeat Trump in the general election. Her home state of Ohio is a top battleground in November.
“Almost 50 percent of the people who vote in the Democratic Party are black and brown. So why would you wait until they normally do, two weeks before, and say how do we get the black vote out, how do we get brown out? You get those votes out by having somebody representative of their demographics on the ticket,” she said.
In recent weeks, other congressional heavyweights spanning the ideological spectrum of the party have indicated their preference for Biden to select a woman of color. Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), whose endorsement was a top reason for Biden’s success in that state, told NPR last month he is “pushing for an African-American female to go on the ticket,” while civil-rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) told reporters following his endorsement of Biden that it “would be good to have a woman of color.” Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), the current head of the CBC, said she is “certainly” hoping for that outcome, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently acknowledged it would be a “significant milestone,” while expressing her preference for a progressive woman.
When asked if she believes Biden’s campaign is aware of increased calls from leaders and rank-and-file Democrats on that front, Fudge said: “No question about it.”
“He and his people know the clamor that’s going on on the ground and in other areas,” she said. “It’s up to him to make his choice. But it won’t be for lack of knowing what’s going on.”
Periodically, Biden has given supporters a glimpse into what he wants in a running mate. In a recent edition of his campaign’s new newsletter, one of several efforts to connect with voters remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, he indicated experience is a top criterion. “Someone who is ready to be president at a moment’s notice,” Biden wrote, in addition to the woman being “simpatico” to him and a “partner in progress.”
Biden approximated that it will take “until sometime in July” to narrow down his hypothetical shortlist, while announcing in an appearance on the Late Late Show With James Corden that he hopes to have a task force up and running to vet possible options by May 1. The former vice president has previously said he’s listening closely to direction from his old boss, former President Barack Obama, who endorsed his bid in an appeal for unity last week.
In addition to Obama, some leaders are hoping Biden listens to the most loyal constituency in the party, black women, for cues.
“If you’re asking Greg Meeks whether he would like a black woman, absolutely,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which endorsed Biden on Monday. “I think that having a black woman is the right thing to do. Black women, in and of themselves, are inspiration. If we followed the lead of black women in the 2016 election, we’d have a different president,” he said.
Fear of repeating mistakes from the past presidential election, when Trump won over Hillary Clinton due, in part, to lower Democratic turnout, is high on the minds of some leaders looking to energize the existing base in record numbers in 2020. Since falling short of the governorship two years ago, Abrams has worked on a variety of anti-voter suppression and engagement efforts that aim to bridge those gaps. Among Democrats interviewed, nearly every one said having a black woman on the party’s ticket as a counterweight to Biden would help motivate more voters to show up at the polls.
According to a poll conducted for BlackPAC, a progressive voter advocacy organization, this month, 38 percent of voters who said they planned to vote for Biden said they would be more enthusiastic about it when asked if he were to choose a black woman as his running mate. Twenty-seven percent of voters who already plan to vote for Biden said it does not change things much, while 17 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for him in the fall. The survey, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Normington, Petts and Associates, polled 800 black voters in eight key battlegrounds: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
“The choice of a black woman would have some impact in terms of motivation for people to be more excited to turn out to vote, and that includes people who did not show up in 2016,” Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, told The Daily Beast. But Shropshire noted that there may not be set deal breakers for black voters when evaluating Biden’s running mate, and that beating Trump is still the top priority.
“It matters who it is,” Shropshire said. “I think that [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren is different than [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar or [Michigan Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer. Part of Biden’s argument for making his case was that he could bring back these white working-class voters. It doesn’t make sense to me that you would have to add an additional layer.”
Warren, who said she would accept the position if offered, is viewed among some Democrats as a figure that could excite progressives, while Midwesterners Klobuchar and Whitmer are eyed for their theoretical ability to woo back Trump voters in the Rust Belt.
Still, the very mention of Klobuchar and Whitmer has caused some black commentators and activists to wonder about the thought process behind considering them at all.
“You have foreign election interference already documented, you have GOP-led voter suppression, and you have COVID-19, and that unholy trinity can significantly depress turnout. You want people who can energize,” said Tiffany Cross, author of Say It Louder! Black Voters, White Narratives, & Saving Our Democracy. “I just don’t know what an Amy Klobuchar or a Gretchen Whitmer would bring to that landscape for Joe Biden. The discussion itself feels incredibly disrespectful to the people who shifted this landscape for him.”
Cross went on to say that in her estimation, the reason why some in the landscape are pressing Biden to choose a black woman running mate is because “black people literally saved his campaign.”
“Yes there are some people who are excited about a President Joe Biden and who genuinely like him. But it would be a mistake to assume that black voters across this country are so excited to elect Joe Biden,” she said.
The notion that a 77-year-old white man, who will turn 78 less than three weeks after Election Day, may not be considered a widely inspirational figure in the Democratic Party was regularly referenced in tandem with his VP pick. Democrats said it’s that reality, his age, gender, and race, that make it even more crucial to select someone who can give the ticket something that he lacks. And nearly all said Biden’s campaign should prioritize that thinking when strategizing about their shortlist.
“I have no hesitancy in saying that Joe Biden is a lackluster candidate,” said Debbie Hines, a former Baltimore prosecutor who has been outspoken about issues disproportionately impacting black women.
“It will be difficult for him to win if he picks someone who is a white woman Midwesterner. That is not going to motivate progressives, it is not not going to bring aboard any of the Bernie Sanders supporters, and it is not going to motivate African-Americans that overwhelmingly know that they gave him the position that he is in right now as the presumptive nominee,” she said. “I want him to deliver.”