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How Will Democrats Talk About Race In 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): A powerful moment on the second night of the Democratic debates came when Sen. Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden for his remarks about working with segregationist senators, as well as his opposition to school integration via busing in the 1970s. Biden has stood by his original comments, arguing that he meant them as an example of his ability to work across the aisle, and in the debate he invoked his record of supporting civil rights.

Other candidates, notably Sen. Cory Booker, have also criticized Biden on issues of race. Nevertheless, at least going into last week’s debates, Biden was the most popular Democratic candidate among Democratic voters. But did Thursday night’s exchange show that Biden is out of touch with the modern Democratic Party? Is there a generational divide at play here? And how are the other candidates positioned — or not positioned — to talk about issues of race?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I would say there are actually two things at stake here. First, there is the question of whether there is a divide. I don’t think the Democratic Party has a racially conservative wing anymore, but I do think there’s a split over how so-called identity issues are approached by the party.

And the second issue is about the candidates themselves, particularly how this impacts Biden’s core arguments for why he should be the nominee.

julian.wamble: (Julian Wamble, a political science professor at Stony Brook University): The Democratic Party has certainly changed on how it discusses race, and this is particularly true among white Democrats. But what we’re seeing here is both a generational divide and a change in the racial landscape of American politics.

Biden is from a generation where his past choices concerning race are coming back to haunt him in ways that he may not have expected, and that’s because issues surrounding race are at the forefront of the political conversation.

And generally speaking, white candidates have only had to contend with not being overtly racist, but now the Harris-Biden moment shows how that may have changed.

meredithconroy: (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I agree that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a racially conservative wing anymore. That could be because these voters have left the party. However, a recent study after the 2016 election found that white Democrats are changing their views about race to align with their partisanship.

Now whether that means someone like Biden is disqualified for previous positions like opposing school integration via busing in the 1970s isn’t clear.

julia_azari: Why, in 2019, anything can still surprise me is an open question for perhaps another chat, but I was legitimately surprised to see people relitigating the busing debate of the 1970s on Twitter on Saturday.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Do we all agree this was bad for Biden?

On net, I think this was a bad week for Biden, but at the same time, I think there is a group of Democrats who aren’t that liberal on racial issues and basically agree with him.

A study from the Pew Research Center found, for example, that about 22 percent of Democrats thought people were “seeing discrimation where it does not exist.”

meredithconroy: It was bad for Biden because he looked ill-prepared. His record is long — and to be clear, all the candidates have a past they’ll have to defend at some point — but his defense was particularly weak.

perry: We should note that Politico/Morning Consult found that he lost 5 points since the debate (nearly 8 points among voters in our Morning Consult survey), with Harris going up by 6. A CNN poll found that Biden’s support had fallen to 22 percent, down from 32 percent this time last month. Harris was in second at 17 percent, compared to 8 percent a month ago. So it seems clear this debate and the fallout from it hurt Biden and helped Harris. That said, I think Biden is still the front-runner.

julian.wamble: I actually don’t think black voters are going to be so quick to withdraw their support from Biden given the perception that he is best situated to beat Trump. However, it is possible that discussions of his past missteps regarding race and racial policies could hurt him with black voters in the future, especially if another candidate seems poised to be able to defeat Trump.

perry: I agree. I also think that these racial controversies are as much of a problem for Biden (and Pete Buttigieg) with white liberal voters, who care a lot about racial issues, as with black people.

sarahf: So in that chart Perry shared, a majority of Democrats (78 percent) were likely to say that it’s a big problem that Americans don’t see discrimination where it exists.

This means that for these Democrats, Harris’s exchange with Biden should have been a powerful moment, right?

perry: The overwhelming majority of Democrats are liberal on racial issues. But Biden has proof that he is, too. He loves to mention that he was Barack Obama’s vice president, but more than that, I think Biden is actually in the mainstream of the Democratic Party on many racial issues.

sarahf: Do others agree? What is the evidence we have for Biden being in the mainstream on racial issues vs. Biden being out of touch?

julia_azari: As a parties scholar, I think what’s meant by “the mainstream” is malleable. That is, people are going to be responsive to elite cues about how race fits into other issues, or what kinds of problems should be prioritized (race vs. class), and how to frame both the causes of racial injustice and the solutions to it.

perry: And the elite cues are confusing right now. The post-debate media coverage for Biden has been largely negative. But influential black Democrats like Jim Clyburn and John Lewis generally defended him on comments he made before the debate. So I don’t think the message that “Biden is bad on racial issues” or “black people don’t like Biden” is clear to voters. I also think that will be a hard message to have resonate — Biden spent eight years defending Barack Obama.

julian.wamble: What we’re seeing is a crisis of what it means to be white in America, and white liberals are bearing the brunt of it. This means the need to create distance from the “bad moments” is heightened which I think the response to Biden is a manifestation of, and could foster the belief that Biden is out of touch with the Democratic Party.

sarahf: Is it fair to say that this is the next fracture point in terms of cultural issues in the primary? Or where do you see the next divide? It does seem to be an area where Biden is particularly vulnerable.

perry: Biden supporters are older and more moderate and so unlikely to break with him en-masse over these kinds of issues on race or gender. (The CNN poll showed Biden with a 12-point advantage over the next-closest Democrat (Harris) among Democrats over 45, but trailing Harris, Sanders and Warren among Democrats under 45.)

Which means that the better case for Harris and others to make is not that Biden has bad racial views, but that his debate performance suggests Biden is a weak candidate and can’t beat Trump, which cuts against one of his biggest strengths — Democratic voters care a lot about electability and generally see Biden as the most electable candidate.

julian.wamble: Yes, what Biden has going for him is the perception that he can beat Trump and that some of his “authenticity” will make him appealing to certain voters.

meredithconroy: But on the electability question, at least one poll after the debates found that voters thought Elizabeth Warren and Harris were more electable than before (although Biden was still said to be the most electable).

julia_azari: So the Democratic Party has traditionally been divided on race — the last 40 years are a break away from that. But if issues like reparations or other race-conscious policy initiatives become part of the national agenda, we might see more of a split in the party.

You can already see this happening on the question of criminal justice.

perry: Right. If reparations or really aggressive school integration programs become big issues, we might see that even some white liberals aren’t totally on board, because these policies will be perceived as giving black people things at the expense of non-black people. And if there is a racial divide on those issues, I’d imagine that more moderate whites will be more drawn to candidates like Biden.

meredithconroy: Well, the elevation of those issues don’t benefit Biden or Harris, right?

perry: No, but they might help Warren.

julia_azari: But as Meredith pointed out, this is an area of vulnerability for Harris too.

At this stage, there really isn’t a candidate who is an obvious pick for serious racial justice activists. Nearly all the major candidates have liabilities — even Julian Castro, given his background as the Housing and Urban Development secretary). But Biden, Harris and Buttigieg in particular have serious liabilities.

So it’s really unclear which candidate (if any) this would benefit.

meredithconroy: Very unclear!!!

perry: Sanders came out in support of allowing people currently incarcerated to vote, while most Democratic candidates favor voting rights only for people after they have left prison. Warren was one of the first candidate to embrace a study on whether there should be reparations for black Americans, and Castro has called to change the law to make illegally entering the country a civil offense, instead of a criminal one.

So some candidates have and will push forward fairly strong stances on racial issues in a way I’m not sure Biden, Harris or say Cory Booker are inclined to.

The question I’m most curious about is whether this was good for Harris or not.

I tend to think it was mostly good for Harris. (And the polls suggest it was.) She got more media attention and I think it’s fair to say she appealed to white liberals, who say they are progressive on racial issues. But this doesn’t mean she necessarily cut into Biden’s advantage with black voters.

julian.wamble: I’m not sure it was as good for her as some think it was. It was effective to show that Biden has some problems when it comes to race, but not that she is a better choice to represent voters with those interests.

meredithconroy: Right. In terms of positioning her as a strong candidate, who can confront opponents, it helps her. But it also opens up her Attorney General record and her time spent as a prosecutor in California to greater scrutiny.

sarahf: Biden seemed to try to push on that in the debates by pointing out his background as a public defender, but that didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

Do we think that it will come up in other debates?

julian.wamble: Harris’s prosecutorial background, particularly the truancy laws, which have been shown to disproportionately affect communities of color, will definitely come up in future debates. I think especially now, given the new polls showing her making strong gains among Democratic voters. If she is viewed as one of the candidates to beat, then her time as prosecutor will definitely gain higher levels of scrutiny.

meredithconroy: Yeah, strategically speaking, Biden probably should have leaned into that attack more. But I’ve also been critical of those questioning Harris’s record as Attorney General, given that women often have to have more experience than their male counterparts in order to gain political influence and power.

perry: My bet: The backlash to Harris’s background as a prosecutor is largely contained to a small number of very progressive voters, and is not a real barrier among the vast majority of Democratic primary voters.

When I ask voters about Harris, I hear way more often their concern that she is not electable than anything about her criminal justice record. (I also think it will be hard for Biden to campaign on the idea that a black female candidate wants to send lots of black people to jail in the same way that it will be it will be hard for Harris to prove Obama’s VP doesn’t support allowing black kids to attend integrated schools.)

julia_azari: I sort of disagree, Perry. If, say, the Bernie left came out against Harris that could get ugly fast.

perry: But she was never going to win those people.

She is a fairly establishment-friendly candidate.

julia_azari: You’re right that she was never going to win those voters. But the question is whether their messaging does other damage. I’m not sure I would have previously considered this a possibility, but after 2016 I do.

perry: When I watched that moment, I initially thought it was bad for Harris because it could become framed by her critics as an electability issue. Obama did well in 2008 and 2012 because he rarely spoke about race in a way that might alienate white moderate general-election voters. But Harris went over that line.

And now New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has blasted Harris for “making white Americans feel racially on trial.” Granted, Stephens is an anti-Trump conservative, so not exactly representative of the Democratic primary electorate, but I still think of it as evidence that Harris may have provoked white people who don’t want to be criticized on racial issues unless they do something over-the-top like Trump.

It has the potential for a lot of backlash.

julian.wamble: Obama definitely had his own challenges with electability, particularly in 2008, but that was a question of whether the United States was ready for a black president. The 2020 election is different insofar that Democrats are looking for a candidate who can beat Trump. And the notion of “electability” is different this time around, especially for the female candidates who are seen, by some, as not being “strong” or “tough” enough to take on Trump. So I saw Harris calling out Biden as a signal that she wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with a man.

julia_azari: Also, I think that Harris’s approach spoke to white Democrats who want to congratulate themselves for supporting her, which I saw as part of Obama’s calculus, as well. I know it sounds reductive, but voters feeling good about themselves often drives political decisions. (See Lilliana Mason’s work on identity politics.)

meredithconroy: Yeah, especially among Democrats who are concerned that electability arguments exclude women and people of color.

sarahf: Were there other candidates who were hurt or helped by this exchange? Or phrased another way, is a stronger Harris bad for Booker?

meredithconroy: I thought Booker opened the door for Harris’s attacks, after he went after Biden for his segregationist comments. And it seemed to elevate his candidacy (at least in terms of media coverage), so I’m not sure its bad for Booker, necessarily.

perry: A stronger Harris is probably bad for Booker. A Harris who disqualifies Biden (by showing him as an inept) but also raises questions about herself (can she be cast as too left and unelectable in the general) is good for Booker.

A weaker Biden is good for everyone.

meredithconroy: Yeah, I think Perry is right.

julian.wamble: A strong Harris isn’t great for Booker in the long run, but considering he’s also getting media attention and talking about race as a result, it’s not bad for him yet.

Which I think is to Perry’s point — a weaker Biden is good for everyone else.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”

Julian Wamble is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.