Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris each had pretty strong showings during the fifth Democratic debate last month in Atlanta. But with the vicious cycle of history repeating itself, both of their polling numbers haven’t budged a bit in a truth that we’ve seen following most of their other debate performances.
The lone exception to what has all but become a rule following the Democratic debates was Harris’ surge in polling following her sharp exchange with Joe Biden on the topic of busing and the former vice president’s sympathetic words of admiration for two racist senators. Aside from that, though, both she and Booker’s polling numbers have hovered in the single-digits.
To be sure, there is no perfect Democratic candidate. But all three of the front-runners (four, if you count Pete Buttigieg’s curious upswing as of late despite having even less support from Black voters than Booker and Harris) have had their own racial missteps at one point or another. And, according to recent polling, all of them are polling head and shoulders above the only two viable Black candidates who have been in the race for months.
That was especially true when it came to Black voters.
So why are Booker and Harris polling so poorly with Black voters?
There is no simple answer to that question, especially since the science behind polling has shown itself to be far from exact. But after the last debate, which included the persistent and fierce defense of Black lives that we’ve come to expect from Booker and Harris, it seemed to be a question that needed to be asked.
Campaign staffing issues aside, one possible answer is that Black voters may fear that in the country’s current racist climate, any Black candidate would be virtually unelectable. But, of course, the Black vote is not a monolith and Black voters — especially Black women — have more than proven themselves to be politically savvy and engaged to the point they deserve the benefit of any doubt when it comes to evaluating the field of candidates.
It gets a little more puzzling, though, when you look on a granular level, like in South Carolina, the first state holding its primary that will feature a sizeable number of Black voters. But the polling there has nearly matched the low national numbers Booker and Harris have registered.
So what gives?
More realistically, the polling probably isn’t a true reflection of Black voters, as it’s always unclear who exactly participates in these surveys that never seem to be offered to this writer who has been a registered voter since 1992.
With that said, Astead W. Herndon of the New York Times recently wrote that he interviewed “more than two dozen black voters in Atlanta and across South Carolina” and found that “many articulated a particular disenchantment with the idea that racial representation equated to change, and that they should automatically back a candidate who looked like them.”
In other words, Black voters may not necessarily care that the campaigns of Booker and Harris have been cloaked in Blackness since the day they were announced.
Booker officially launched his presidential bid on the first day of Black History Month. After the announcement, he went on Black radio’s iconic “Tom Joyner Morning Show” and Joe Madison‘s “The Black Eagle” on SiriusXM’s Urban View channel.
Harris announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She has also based her campaign in Baltimore and her hometown of Oakland—two cities with long-established Black communities. Her next stop was to her alma mater, Howard University, one of the nation’s top historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). By the end of that week, she attended a fundraising gala with her Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority sisters.
Conversely, while the campaign that then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama ran ahead of the 2008 election certainly had its so-called Black moments, his candidacy was not defined by the fact that he is an African American (at least to Democratic voters). Obama was able to energize the Black voter base to participate in record numbers.
Fast forward a little more than a decade later and the racist presidency of Donald Trump arguably might compel a Black candidate to be more outspoken about his or her Blackness than African American candidates of the past. And while racism has always been a scourge in American society, Trump’s presidency has emphasized issues that have further divided the country along racial lines to the point where Black candidates would be remiss not to address what has become the implicitly biased elephant in the larger political room.
Of course, if history is any indication, it would be naive to count out Booker and Harris from being in the running for the Black vote. A closer look at the early days of Obama’s first campaign showed he also struggled to gain a foothold among Black voters. Back in February of 2007, Reuters reported that Obama lagged “well behind Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York among black voters, the most loyal Democratic voting bloc, and his candidacy has been greeted cautiously by some veteran black leaders uncertain about his experience and views.” Just more than one year later, a CNN poll found that Obama was enjoying “the support of a majority of black Democrats.”
With that said, while their non-Black counterparts held a series of campaign events and rallies surrounding and following the debate in Atlanta decidedly in search of securing the Black vote, Booker and Harris were the only presidential candidates who opted against doing so. That move that may have rubbed some African American voters the wrong way. Especially when it came to Harris, who has already been knocked for her prosecutorial record that critics argue disproportionately harmed Black and brown communities in California.
But Harris’ repeated vocal support for Black people — Black women, in particular — cannot be ignored. Especially during and after the latest debate.
The coveted Black vote has proven itself to be a major electoral force, so the eventual Democratic nominee must secure it in order to move forward with any chance of success against Trump next year. And it’s a lot more dire of a partisan situation than some people think, according to a recent Brookings Institution report about Black voters.
“Democrats in 2020 face an existential crisis about whether white working-class voters should be at the center of the party,” Andre M. Perry and David Harshbarger wrote. “They would do well to remember lessons of the past, and compete in the most important primary of them all—the one for Black voters.”
Considering who the current occupant of the White House is, and the levels of excitement generated by Obama’s two presidential campaigns around Black voters, it was unclear why Booker and Harris haven’t appeared to be able to get their campaigns resonating (according to polling) with the same sense of racial and political unity, and urgency, among the same electorate.