In late February, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was in tatters. He’d lost badly in the early caucuses and primaries, coming in an embarrassing fifth in New Hampshire. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were surging. Biden and his watery, centrist message seemed out of step with the country. He was fading.
He’d long pinned his hopes on winning the primary in South Carolina, with its large number of African-American voters. There, the wily congressman, Rep. James Clyburn, a veteran of civil rights battles, was not daunted by Biden’s early failures. A moderate, Clyburn believed Biden, and his focus on kitchen-table values like jobs and health care, was a winner.
After keeping his powder dry, Clyburn finally threw his support behind the embattled Biden, and urged his fellow South Carolinians to do the same.
Clyburn delivered. Biden roared to victory in the Palmetto State, thanks to overwhelming Black support, and within two weeks was the favourite to win the nomination.
He never trailed again.
Saturday morning US time, Biden finally grasped the prize, when television networks declared him the President-elect.. Amidst the endless analysis and post mortems to come, one thing is beyond dispute: Biden once again has to thank the African American vote—not just in spirit, but in real voter turnout that put him in the White House.
From Milwaukee (Wisconsin) to Detroit (Michigan) to Atlanta (Georgia) and, ultimately. Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), urban Black support for Biden and Kamala Harris was the deciding factor, winning back states Hillary Clinton had lost in 2016 and, in the case of Georgia, turning a red state blue. The last time Georgia went Democratic in a presidential election was for fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992.
More so than young people, labour unions or educated suburbanites, African-Americans are the most reliable voters for the Democratic party.
“The truth of the matter is, once again, it’s African American voters, Black people, that have to step up and save our democracy. There is not a more loyal and dependable voting bloc in the country,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, told the Washington Post. “And if you look at when we show up, we win elections.”
This is not mere rhetoric. According to the Post, exit polls showed that 87 percent of African American voters backed Biden—including 91 percent of Black women, long the most reliable Democratic voting bloc.
This is not news; in fact, it was lighter-than-expected Black turnout in Detroit in 2016 that lost Michigan for Clinton. But as the mail-in votes were counted this week, it became clear just how essential African-Americans were to Biden’s victory.
No matter the final outcome in Georgia (where a recount is already planned), its status as a battleground state is a remarkable development. Much of the credit goes to Stacey Abrams, a former state official who registered hundreds of thousands of new Black voters in the past two years.
Abrams was fuelled in part by apparent voter suppression involving her own race for Georgia governor in 2018. Byzantine rules were employed to close polling places in black neighbourhoods and thousands of voters were removed from registration rolls—an echo of the Jim Crow voting laws that kept Southern Blacks from voting for nearly 100 years until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Abrams lost the governor’s race by less than 2 per cent, and has since dedicated herself to expanding and protecting African-American voting rights in the state.
Since 2018, Abrams has helped register 800,000 new voters in Georgia. Half of them are under 30, and 45 percent are people of colour, who lean overwhelmingly Democratic.
Abrams was once discussed as possible running mate for Biden. Now, she will be instrumental in getting out the Black vote again in what is shaping up to be not just one but TWO runoff elections for both Georgia seats in the US Senate, which will decide if Democrats can get control of the chamber.
It will be a very tough fight, but don’t count Abrams and Georgia’s African-American voters out just yet. Like Clyburn in South Carolina, they don’t shrink from a fight, and they know what’s on the line.