Joe Biden is counting on his running mate Kamala Harris and her deep connections to the Black community to boost turnout from one of the Democratic Party’s most important voting blocs.
But Harris’s difficulty stirring enthusiasm among Black voters during the Democratic primaries show that she still needs to prove she can motivate this constituency, some activists say. Her efforts could be crucial in swing-state cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee where Black voters may prove decisive in defeating President Donald Trump.
“These are questions that she has to answer head on, she actually has to talk about her evolution and talk about the way the world was in terms of her progressive prosecution back when she was a prosecutor, talk about the challenges that she’s had and talk about where she’s moved,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a racial justice organization.
Prominent Black Democrats are cheering her selection, and political strategists say that Harris, the first Black and Indian-American woman to be on a major party presidential ticket, will enhance Democrats’ efforts to win over Black voters.
Since the announcement on Tuesday, many Black Democrats have said it shows a long overdue commitment to African-American voters and the issues that matter to them.
“For once in my lifetime, it doesn’t seem like the Democratic Party is taking Black people totally for granted,” said Charlamagne Tha God, a host on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated radio show popular among young Black people. “And you know Black people, we want to show up for who shows up for us.”
Yet Democratic strategists say Harris, California’s junior senator, was held to a higher standard during her presidential run because voters also worried she couldn’t beat Trump. She consistently polled in single digits among Black voters, who overwhelmingly supported Biden, followed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In particular, she was skewered over her tough-on-crime record during her years as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.
“Joe Biden was a candidate that was known,” said Chryl Laird, an assistant professor at Bowdoin College who studies the Black electorate. “He had already sat alongside Barack Obama. If you are risk averse, if you are somebody who doesn’t want to take a risk in a system that often doesn’t allow for that kind of behavior, I think African American voters thought he is the safer bet.”
Now, the calculus has changed, Laird said, arguing that Harris, 55, will excite middle-aged and older Black women. She also predicts that Harris will energize younger Black women, including those whose views are to the left of Harris’s.
“Even though they are more progressive leaning, the symbolic nature of what she represents as a woman of color will be significant for them,” she said.
Still, Harris faces skepticism from progressives, and the concerns about her prosecutorial record have faced renewed scrutiny in the aftermath of nationwide protests against police brutality.
Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking African American in the U.S. House, said that reputation should help her in key areas.
”She brings to this ticket a smorgasbord of qualifications,” he told Bloomberg Television. “I think that she gives to this ticket the ability to win in those strategic places.”
Warren Over Harris
Many Black progressives were championing Warren as a possible vice presidential nominee. A CNN poll conducted in May showed Warren had the highest favorability rating among non-White voters with 72%, compared to 57% for Harris. A CBS News poll from the same month showed Warren as the favorite vice-presidential prospect among Democratic or Democratic-leaning African-American voters, with 28% saying Biden should choose her, compared with 23% for Harris.
Yet as Harris is re-introduced to the country as Biden’s running mate, allies of the 77-year-old presidential candidate say they hope she will infuse more enthusiasm into the campaign that will draw more younger people and people of color into the fold.
Even though Biden already has deep support from Black voters, Harris’s allies say her background as a graduate of Howard University and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha, a Black sorority, gives her a closer connection than Biden would be able to make.
“The ancestor gotta be pleased about the pick of Kamala Harris,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who supported Harris’s presidential campaign. “I mean, she’s on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, she’s on the shoulders of Ella Baker, she’s on the shoulders of Barbara Jordan. And so there is going to be a momentum wave that is going to have ripples in all of the areas that, while Joe Biden understands Black voters and Black voters understand him, his arms weren’t long enough to touch.”
After depressed turnout among Black voters contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, the expectation that Harris will excite Black voters could prove critical to the Democrats’ electoral success.
“This is not going to win you any new voters. We’re not talking about swing voters. We are talking about increasing turnout in the Democratic base,” Patrick Murray, the executive director of Monmouth University Polling Institute, said about Harris joining the ticket. “Being able to turn out another 25,000, 30,000 votes in a city like Philadelphia or Detroit could be the margin of victory. It would have been the margin of victory four years ago.”
— With assistance by Jeffrey Taylor, Emma Kinery, and Skylar Woodhouse
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