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How Will Biden’s Latest Comments Affect His Standing In The Democratic Primary?

Joe Biden’s popularity with black voters is a huge factor in the 2020 Democratic primary. In most state and national polls that show results by race, Biden has big leads over his Democratic rivals among African-American voters. He leads more narrowly, and sometimes trails, among white Democrats. His strong black support creates the potential for Biden to survive an early loss in Iowa and/or New Hampshire by dominating the contests in the South, which tend to have large black electorates.1

So with black voters so vital to his candidacy, this week’s controversy around Biden seems really important at first glance. This wasn’t a single gaffe by the ex-vice president, but really four. In remarks at a fundraiser on Tuesday night, Biden emphasized his ability to work across the aisle by referring to his relationships with James Eastland, a Democratic senator from Mississippi from 1943-1978, and Herman Talmadge, a Democratic senator from Georgia who served from 1957-1981. Both men were strong opponents of desegregation. Making it worse, Biden specifically noted that Eastland had referred to him as “son,” but not “boy” — a cringeworthy comment by Biden because white Americans in that era often called black adults “boy” to demean them. When Sen. Cory Booker said that the vice president should apologize for the “boy” and Eastland comments, Biden responded by saying it was Booker who should apologize, with Biden essentially describing himself as the aggrieved person in this dispute, not Booker, one of only three African-American members of the Senate. Finally, the Democratic front-runner invoked a phrase often used by older white people after making problematic racial comments, “there’s not a racist bone in my body.”

Nothing Biden said this week is likely to be featured in a class on how to discuss racial issues well. But we should be careful not to assume Biden’s inartful comments will hurt the front-runner, particularly with black voters. And If this episode does erode Biden’s support, it’s likely to be with a broad range of Democrats, not just black voters.

To start, black voters aren’t the only Democrats who might find Biden’s comments particularly problematic. As FiveThirtyEight has written before, the intense coverage since 2014 of police shootings of African-Americans and the rise of Black Lives Matter have resulted in a sharp rise in the percentage of white Democrats who believe blacks suffer from both past and current racial discrimination, according to polls.

Here’s Democrats overall on racism:

And Democrats by race on equal rights:

Those charts are a little out of date, but recent data shows a similar dynamic. A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year found that 80 percent of white Democrats feel that the legacy of slavery still affects African-Americans, just shy of the 87 percent of black Democrats who hold that view.2 According to Pew, a higher percentage of white Democrats (78 percent) than black Democrats (71 percent) said that being white helps a person get ahead in America today.

What kind of white Democrats might be the most bothered by Biden’s comments? In the Pew data, the white Americans most likely to say that blacks face particular disadvantages are those who have college degrees and are under age 30. Remember that polls of Democratic primary voters generally show Biden with big leads among older, less-educated and more moderate Democrats, while younger, more liberal and more educated Democrats are more divided on his candidacy. So one potential outcome is these comments reinforce that dynamic — this is another reason for younger and more liberal Democrats across racial lines to oppose Biden, but his older and more moderate supporters aren’t as annoyed by them. (Biden’s base has essentially shrugged off controversies about how he has touched women in the past.) My bottom line: Don’t assume this controversy cuts along purely black-white lines.

But if these comments could hurt Biden with all Democrats, they could alternatively not really damage him much at all — even among black voters. Poll after poll has found that Biden has very, very high approval ratings among black voters. For example, a survey conducted last month on behalf of the Black Economic Alliance found that 76 percent of black Democrats are either enthusiastic or comfortable with Biden’s candidacy, compared to just 16 percent who are uncomfortable or have some reservations. This was the best favorable/unfavorable of any of the candidates that respondents were asked about. And according to data from Morning Consult, which is conducting weekly polls of the 2020 race with large sample sizes — giving us more resolution on results for subgroups — older black voters really, really like Biden: He is getting more than 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote among blacks age 45 and over, compared to 34 percent among blacks under age 45.

So I’m skeptical that this controversy will substantially erode that support, particularly among older black voters who have such positive feelings about Biden. In the early stages of this race, he has already weathered another issue that involves race: his treatment of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991, when Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I’m not predicting that Biden, in a much different primary race, wins black voters by Clinton-level margins. But the idea that black voters will swing wildly away from a candidate because a gaffe or controversy involves race just isn’t borne out by history or the data. In 2016, Hillary Clinton faced a lot of flak over a 1994 anti-crime bill that many Democratic activists now argue was overly punitive, specifically toward African-Americans, since her husband was the person who signed it into law. But she still overwhelmingly won the black vote in the Democratic primary. Biden was heavily involved in that bill — but so far, that has not dented his support with black voters. And amid this week’s controversy, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus publicly defended Biden.

In fact, Biden’s comments might reinforce one thing some black voters like about him: Biden might be relatable to people with some racist views, making Biden more electable than, say, a black candidate. It’s hard to get at these dynamics in formal polls. But in interviews I’ve done (and other reporters have found this as well), black voters often express the view that the U.S. elections in 2008 and 2012 were somewhat of an anomaly (that Americans would elect a black president). For them, 2016 was a return to normal (Americans elected a president who had expressed some anti-black sentiments). One of the challenges for Harris’s campaign in particular has been that many African-Americans voters, having watched the hatred of Obama from some Republicans and then Trump’s victory, believe that America is too racist and sexist to elect a black female president.

In short, black voters care about “electability” too — and that is likely benefitting Biden, at least at this stage of the campaign. Lots of polls have found a majority of Democrats are prioritizing beating Trump over issues and policy. That includes black voters. The firm Avalanche Strategy, in data provided to FiveThirtyEight, found that about a quarter of black voters would prefer a different 2020 candidate than the one that they currently favor if they could wave a “magic wand” and just make the person president without him or her having to win the primary or the general election. That share is about the same for Latino and non-Hispanic white voters.

It’s hard to predict what will happen to Biden’s standing in the wake of this week’s news. But I think it’s increasingly clear that the way we think about racial controversies (with the implication that minorities are particularly triggered by them) and the black vote (assuming it is fairly monolithic) are off. Biden’s positive mentions of his work with segregationist senators may have annoyed nonblack Democrats as much or more than black ones. And the biggest question is not whether it pulls all black people from Biden — the younger ones are already kind of ambivalent about him — but whether it breaks his bond with older black people.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Hillary Clinton took this path in 2016, and Biden looks poised to as well — he has a big lead in South Carolina.

  2. Only about 40 percent of white Republicans see slavery as having a big impact on the standing of blacks in America in the present day.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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