It was a promise Joe Biden made during a low point in his presidential campaign, after he lost both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Just days before the South Carolina primary, when Black voters would effectively hand him the Democratic nomination, Biden said at the end of a debate that if he were elected, he would nominate the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s a promise that some Republicans have since derided as discriminatory or akin to affirmative action, but the president’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the seat of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, is the one notable promise to Black voters — perhaps the only one — that Biden has managed to uphold. And according to political science research and experts I spoke to, this promise of appointing the nation’s first Black woman to the Supreme Court is important to Black voters.
In February, political scientists Jaclyn Kaslovsky of Rice University and Andrew R. Stone of Washington University in St. Louis published a piece in The Washington Post about their research showing that Black Americans place a high value on what’s called “descriptive representation.” In other words, having someone who looks like them in a position of power — particularly in the judiciary — is very important to Black Americans.
Kaslovsky told me one reason why Black Americans may want more Black people in positions of power is that they’ve been historically underrepresented in politics. “There’s research arguing that group consciousness matters for how people evaluate political institutions,” she said. “So, as Black Americans become more represented in the judiciary, they may feel like their voices are legitimated by that institution.”
Jackson’s confirmation process comes at an important time, too, as Black Americans have soured on Biden in the past six months, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of presidential approval polls going back to October. But while it’s possible that Jackson’s nomination offers the president a lifeline with Black voters, who overwhelmingly want to see her confirmed, there are also many reasons why Biden’s nomination of Jackson won’t be enough. Although research shows that a diverse judiciary is important to some Black voters, it’s unlikely that Jackson’s nomination will erase Biden’s longstanding problem of failing to address and implement policies that would benefit Democrats’ most loyal base.
“Biden dropped the ball on so many things, and not just things that people hoped for or expected he’d do, but promises he made to the American public, like restructuring student loan debt or managing the pandemic better or implementing the child tax credit,” said Robert L. Reece, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. “I’d bet that type of stuff starts to become more and more prominent as the election becomes closer, especially given that Jackson’s nomination has less of an immediate impact on people’s lives.”
What’s working in Biden’s favor is that polls suggest that Black voters really want Jackson to make it through the nomination process and that her appointment is motivating them ahead of what’s expected to be a grueling midterm cycle for Democrats. While surveys on midterm enthusiasm among Black Americans are generally sparse, at least one survey from Morning Consult/Politico shows that Black voters became more enthusiastic for the midterm elections in late February — right around the time Biden made Jackson’s nomination public. Other polls similarly show Black Americans’ eagerness to get Jackson through the nomination process. According to Navigator Research, 89 percent of Democratic voters and 88 percent of Black voters said they trusted Biden’s judgment on who should be the next Supreme Court justice. In fact, among all races and ethnic groups, Black voters were the most likely to say they would support the Senate’s confirmation of Jackson, at 71 percent; only 11 percent of Black voters said they would oppose the confirmation, for a net support of 60 percentage points. Asian American and Pacific Islander voters had the second-highest level of support for Jackson’s confirmation: 58 percent would support her confirmation, for a net support of 51 points.
But enthusiasm for Biden’s Supreme Court pick hasn’t translated to support for Biden himself so far. In fact, disillusionment with his administration has increased in the past six months.
Of course, Biden’s approval ratings started to nose-dive last summer, as my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and I reported in February, but they are more fluid now, as he got a slight bump in the past several weeks. Still, Biden’s approval is down overall, and the dwindling support among Black Americans is particularly notable given that this bloc helped clinch the presidency for Biden in 2020.
That said, not only are Biden’s struggles with Black voters now part of a larger trend in his abysmal approval ratings, but, according to Reece, other frustrations are likely playing a role, too — for instance, a lack of movement on critical policy concerns like police reform, voting rights legislation, COVID-19 rates and inflation, which still disproportionately affect Black Americans.
In the short term at least, it’s possible that Jackson’s confirmation — assuming it goes through smoothly — will galvanize some Black voters. But, Reece warned me, if this is the only thing the Biden administration is banking on to court the Black vote, it’s probably not going to be enough. “People need tangible things. Not just symbolic representation to get out and vote, especially in the midterms,” he said. “Not only do less people typically vote, but Republicans tend to vote in higher shares.”
In other words, while the historic nature of Jackson’s nomination shouldn’t be dismissed, the Biden administration should not discount the fact that appointments and platitudes alone may not be enough to persuade Black voters to turn out in droves this year the same way they did in 2020.
Democrats have long struggled with engaging Black voters, though, and this is a symptom of a larger problem, as former FiveThirtyEight senior writer Farai Chideya explained ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Because Black Americans reliably vote Democratic, they are treated somewhat as a “captured” voting bloc: That is, they’re often ignored by Republicans but taken for granted by Democrats. As a consequence, Democrats in power, including Biden and current members of Congress, tend to not address or prioritize many of the policy concerns Black communities have.
To be sure, Jackson’s nomination is pretty far away from the midterms, and there’s still plenty of time for voters to either forget Biden took this step or warm up to him before November. As the Morning Consult/Politico poll shows, along with tracking polls from YouGov, Biden’s standing among Black Americans has the potential to rebound. But, as Reece told me, “Biden will have to rely on something else to motivate Black people come November. I’m not sure if Jackson’s nomination will be the thing that gets people out of their seats for a midterm election.”